“For You have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears,
And my feet from falling.”
Psalm 116:8


FBI agent Max West squared his shoulders and forced himself to walk away from the latest scene of destruction. His job there was done – his and Opal’s, his K-9 partner. Unfortunately, the Dupree family crime syndicate, at least what was left of it, seemed determined to keep him and his team scrambling by randomly setting off bombs. Opal, his explosives detection dog, worked very well but it was frustrating to be called in after the fact.

He paused in the shade of an enormous oak and phoned Dylan O’Leary, the team’s computer guru, on his cell. “I’m done with this one. Just the usual leftover components and a lot of jumpy people.” Max sighed. “At least there was no loss of life this time. That family caught in the blast zone on the last one nearly made me turn in my badge.”

“So, what now?” Dylan asked. “You thinking of leaving Northern California and heading home to Billings?”

“Maybe soon. I thought I’d look into the backgrounds of some of the Dupree underlings we’ve scooped up while I’m in the neighborhood. See if we missed anything on the first sweep.”

“Little fish in a big pond,” Dylan reminded him. “We got Reginald Dupree, the real brains behind the drug operation.”

Max nodded. “While his uncle Angus kidnapped one of our best men and escaped. Has there been any word on Agent Morrow’s whereabouts?”

“Sorry. No.”

“Okay.” Max opened the rear door to his black SUV to air it out before letting Opal get in. “I checked our files last night and was on my way to the Garwood Horse Ranch when I got diverted to this call. Vern Kowalski, one of the Dupree drug runners, had ties there. When we arrested him he insisted he was working alone but it won’t hurt to check. I can use a break and so can Opal.”

“You’re the boss, boss.”

Max barely chuckled. Being SAC, Special Agent in Charge, of the classified K-9 unit was no picnic. A lot of responsibility rested on his shoulders, responsibility that weighed heavily. Yes, he considered this job his calling, but that didn’t mean he never felt the pain of loss, never wished he’d been more successful and had prevented every explosion, every injury. Every death.

Closing his eyes for a moment he reminded himself that he was just a man, giving his all in terrible situations. Then he loaded his dog, climbed behind the wheel and continued his interrupted trip to the nearby ranch.
Katerina Garwood was halfway between one of the stables and the house, heading for her old suite, when she saw an imposing black vehicle pass beneath the ornate wrought iron arch at the foot of the drive. Unexpected company was all she needed. If her father came outside to see who it was and caught her trespassing on his precious property he’d be furious. Well, so be it. There was no way she could run and hide in time to avoid encountering the new arrival – and perhaps her irate dad, as well.

Chin high, she paused in the wide, hard-packed drive and shaded her eyes. The SUV reminded her of one that had assisted the county sheriff on the worst day of her life. The day when all her dreams of a happy future had vanished like a puff of smoke.

Darkly tinted windows kept her from getting a good look at the driver until he stopped, opened his door and stepped partway out. Prepared to tell him to go to the house if he needed to speak to someone in charge, she took one look and was momentarily speechless. The blond, blue-eyed man was so imposing and had such a powerful presence he sent her usually normal reactions whirling. When he spoke, his deep voice magnified those unsettling feelings.

“Katerina Garwood?”

“Do I know you?”

“No, but I know you. I’m Special Agent West. I’d like to talk to you about Vern Kowalski.”

“I have nothing to say.” She started to turn away.

“This is not a social call, Ms. Garwood.” He flashed a badge and blocked her path. “I suggest you reconsider.”

“FBI? You have to be kidding. I am so normal, so boring, that until recently people hardly noticed me.”

“They do now, I take it.”

She blushed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah.”

“Then you’ll understand why I need to speak with you.”

A quick glance toward the house told her she and the agent had not yet been noticed. That was too good to last. As soon as one of the hands or the foreman, Heath McCabe, spotted her, word would get to her father and he’d be on the rampage again.

“Not here. Not now. We can meet in South Fork later. I work at the Miner’s Grub diner, on Main, near where the American River forks.”

“What’s wrong, Ms. Garwood? You seem nervous.”

“It’s personal.”

“Everything is when you get right down to it.” He reached for her arm as a familiar white pickup truck pulling a matching horse trailer rounded the nearest of three identical, rectangular stables and came to a stop.

She jerked free. Backed away. Her sky-blue eyes had widened and she was trembling. “I have to go. Now.”

“Care to tell me why?” Max’s gaze was unwavering. “Perhaps you’d better come with me and wait in the car while I have my K-9 partner check this place.”

“What? No. I’m not going anywhere with you. I haven’t broken any laws. All I did was believe Vern’s lies and fall in love with him. It’s not my fault I was duped. And I don’t know anything about his secret life as a crook, okay? Despite all the nasty rumors, I’m a good person.”

“Then why are you so jumpy?” Max continued to crowd her until she was ready to literally shove him away.

Unable to help herself, Katerina darted glances back and forth between the immense house and the complex of stables where the foreman had stopped with the horse trailer. Was he on the phone to her dad already? There was no way to tell. And no way to avoid another terrible scene once Bertrand was notified.

There was only one sensible course of action. She had to plead her case in person, and to do that she had to reach Heath McCabe despite her determined adversary. Staring into the distance on the agent’s opposite side, she used that momentary distraction to slip away.

Max was on her in a flash. Grabbed her arms and held fast. Katerina began to thrash. If her father saw her now he’d be even more positive she was worthless. Tears of frustration filled her eyes.

I will not cry, she insisted to herself. I’m through letting any man make me cry. Nevertheless, a few drops escaped and trickled down her flushed cheeks.

Suddenly, she was pulled free. The middle-aged foreman had come to her rescue. His arm was drawn back, ready to deliver a punch, and the agent’s hand was reaching for his sidearm.

Katerina intervened. “Stop!” She gestured at McCabe. “This is just a misunderstanding. I wanted to keep you from telling dad I’m here and Agent… West? Agent West must have thought I was running away.”

The adrenaline in her system had bolstered Katerina’s courage and she faced him as boldly as she could while her insides quaked.

Max met her gaze head-on. “Your father? Why didn’t you just say so?”

“I did. You weren’t listening.”

“No, you were acting guilty, behaving like a scared kid trying to make a run for it.”

“I’m not a child. I’m twenty-two.”

“I know. I read your file.”

She was thunderstruck. “There’s a file on me? An FBI file?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why am I not surprised?” She felt the starch go out of her like a sigh lost on the wind. Her concentration moved to the foreman. “Please don’t tell Dad I’m here and make him mad all over again. It was bad enough when he threw me out the first time because of my horrible love life. I just want to pick up a few of the personal things I left behind. I know he always works on the ranch books around noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I thought I could sneak in while he was busy in his den.”

McCabe doffed his cowboy hat. “I’d never do you that way, Miss Katerina. You know I wouldn’t.” He gestured back at the truck and trailer. “If I didn’t have to get these horses to the vet for checkups I’d stay here and help.”

“Do you have Moonlight with you? I looked for her in the stables when I got here and she wasn’t in her usual stall. That whole section was empty.”

“Your horse is safe and sound with me.” The wiry foreman eyed Max. “All right if I leave or are you plannin’ to shoot me?”

“I just came to talk to Ms. Garwood. If she had explained the reasons for her reluctance in the beginning we’d probably be done already.”

“You gonna be okay if I go, Ma’am?”

Katerina smiled. “The horses come first with me. You know that. I’ll be fine.” She noticed both men staring at the house across the driveway. “If Dad catches me here and starts yelling again I’ll just do what I did before. I’ll leave.”

“Okay then. You and this cop goin’ into the house now?”

She looked to Max for confirmation.

“I do need to speak to Bertrand Garwood. If that’s a problem for Ms. Garwood I see no reason to confront her father while she’s present. She and I can talk out here.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Katerina said. “You can go, Heath. Take good care of Moonlight and the others.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Watching him drive off, Katerina turned to Max. “All right. If you want to ask me questions let’s get it over with. There’s nothing I can tell you that I haven’t already told the local police and the agents who arrested Vern but I suppose it won’t kill me to go over it again.” She made a face. “I learned a hard lesson.”

“Oh? Did you?”

Her grimace grew and her eyebrows arched. “Yes, mister agent, I found out that my loving father will disown me and throw me out if I make a mistake. I also learned to never trust a glib talking man, and that includes you.”

She would have been happier if he hadn’t seemed to find that final statement amusing.

“Let’s sit in my car,” Max said, gesturing with his arm.
“After you.”

“Can’t I go get my clothes and stuff first? It took a lot of courage for me to drive back out here and as long as Dad hasn’t noticed me yet, I’d like to finish what I came for.”

“I take it you expect me to just hang around while you do as you please.”

“Why not? I’m no criminal.”

The unwavering look she was giving him as she spoke demonstrated determination. And she was right. Law enforcement had nothing on her, personally. He’d merely hoped that some small fact she didn’t even think was important would point the way to more of the Dupree associates, perhaps even to herself, although at this point he viewed the young woman as more of a pawn in a crooked chess game than a true player.

Max conceded. “Okay. Do you want any help?”

“No. The less noise I make, the less likely I’ll be noticed. It’s a big house and when my father works on his accounts he always shuts the den door.”

“All right. I’ll wait in the car.”

As soon as she started toward the garden leading to the nearest door of the ranch-style home, Max turned back to his SUV. There was something appealing about Katerina Garwood; something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. She was far too young for him, of course. It was too bad she hadn’t been born ten years earlier.

Max’s thirty-three wasn’t exactly ancient but there were times when he felt like Methuselah, particularly when he and his team failed to prevent mayhem.

Movement at the edge of his peripheral vision snapped him around. Now what was she up to?

“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” he called.

Turning to walk backwards, Katerina waved. “I left some empty boxes in my truck. I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, you will,” Max muttered. He wasn’t taking any chances that she’d try to flee so he fired up his SUV, made a U-turn and headed for the main gate to block it. If worse came to worst he could always call for backup.
Katerina paused to watch his maneuvers. The man was paranoid. What did he think she was going to do, try to outrun a powerful vehicle like his in her little pickup truck? Talk about David and Goliath.

“Yes, but David won,” she mused, happy to have been reminded of a Bible story where the seemingly weaker combatant triumphed in spite of everything.

Before she had time to pivot and continue on her previous path toward the stable, an intense light flashed.

She instinctively ducked and covered her head with her arms.

Her eardrums felt as if she had plunged to the depths of the sea.

Debris hit her as the blast concussion sent her – and pieces of a barn - flying.

Landing on the hard-packed dirt with the realization that a building had exploded, her last conscious thought was for the wellbeing of her favorite mare, and others. “Thank You, God. Moonlight is safe with Heath.”