Jackson looked at the picture that Derrick had handed him, staring at it as if he had never seen Lacy or a picture of her before.  Finally, he looked up, saying, “I am sorry to hear of your troubles, Derrick….”

“Sorry!” Derrick yelled, interrupting Jackson.  “I don’t need your pity.  I need her found.  I am worried sick that she may…. may…may be dead,” putting his face in his hands, forcing out some tears for show as he dropped down on the couch.

“Derrick, I realize she has been missing for a couple of months, but you need to think positive,” Jackson said.  “What I was trying to say is that we are a law firm, not a detective agency.  You need to hire a private investigator if you feel the police is not doing their job.”

“I want you to investigate.  You did when the audit was off and I suspected her father of embezzlement,”

“Yes, but investigating a missing person case is a whole different story,” Jackson said, reaching out to place the picture on the coffee table.

Ignoring what Jackson had been saying, Derrick continued, “I have my reputation and the company to think of.  I don’t want to everyone to think I cannot control my wife,”

“No one at the company knows Lacy is missing after all this time?” he asked in surprise.  “The police have not been around to ask them questions?”

“It is none the employee’s business what happens in my personal life, and I want to keep that way,” he said angrily.  “I told the police that Lacy did not associate with anyone from the company except in social events so they wouldn’t know anything.”

Jackson stared at Derrick, trying to figure him out.  One minute he seemed like a grieving, worried husband, and the next minute all he seemed to be worried about was his reputation and that of the company.  “Look, all I can recommend a good private investigator that is very discreet,”

“No,” Derrick said interrupting Jackson again.  “I want you to investigate her disappearance. No more arguments. I will make it worth your time,”

Before Jackson could answer Derrick, Maria walked into the room, carrying a tray with a carafe of coffee, cream, sugar, cups, spoons, and a plate of sugar cookies.  She set it down on the coffee table, looking up at Derrick, then down at the table.

“Would you like me to pour?” she asked softly.

“I didn’t ask for any damn cookies and coffee.  This is not a frigging coffee party.  We are discussing some serious personal business.  Get back to the kitchen,” Derrick ordered glaring at her.

Maria turned on her heel, leaving the tray behind, and scampered back to the kitchen, her face red from the humiliation of being yelled at in front of his guest.  Jackson had watched the entire episode and realized that apparently, not all things were as they seemed.  He had observed the way Derrick had stared at Maria’s boobs instead of her face when he yelled at her, and then saw the way he had watched her leave, his eyes glued to her ass.  It made him wonder if Derrick was really the grieving husband, he was portraying himself to be.

“Now that Miss Nosy has scampered back to the kitchen we can finish the conversation in peace,” Derrick said, deciding to pour each a cup of coffee.  “How do you like your coffee?”

“Black,” he said wondering why Derrick made such a fuss when he was going to pour coffee anyway. At times he regretted taking them on as clients but in the beginning, he was a struggling lawyer just starting his practice, and taking them on meant a big boost in his capital.

They sat there in silence for a few minutes, drinking their coffee.  Jackson finished his coffee and set the cup back on the tray. He stood up and reached down to pick up his briefcase.  When he stood up, he found himself face to shoulder with Derrick.  Jackson was not a short man but being only 5’8”, Derrick had at least five inches on him.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “I said I would make it worth your time so name your price,”

“Our business here is done, Derrick.  If you had told Kelly what you wanted, I could have called you and not wasted my time hurrying over here thinking it was a business-related emergency,” Jackson said, trying to keep the anger from his voice.  It irked him to no end to think that Derrick had the audacity to try to buy him.  Derrick had tried to buy him off before and got turned down flat so why he tried it again Jackson did not know.  He decided that the best course of action would be to ignore the bribe, or whatever label Derrick wanted to put on it.

“Our business is not done Jackson until I say it is done!” he yelled stepping closer to Jackson, trying to imitate him with his size.  “Now, name your price,”

For the first time since they went in business all those years ago, Jackson stood up to Derrick. “I am a lawyer, not a private investigator so unless you have something law-related to do with the business, or regarding your wife’s disappearance, we are done.  I have court tomorrow and need to go over some files.  I can see myself out.  I will have the investigator call you,”

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Realizing Jackson was not going to budge on his decision or name his price, Derrick said, “Alright, have him call me,” as he headed to his study.  “Maria, see Jackson out and then clean up that mess in the living room.  And for the record, I had nothing to do with Lacy’s disappearance,” he yelled over his shoulder before he shut the study door.

“Maria, I can see myself out,” he protested but she was already heading to the door.

“Have a good day sir,” she said as she opened the door for him, keeping her eyes downcast.

Jackson started out the door, and then on a hunch he turned around, asking softly, “Maria, do you know anything about that night that Lacy left?”

Maria wanted to voice her suspicions but knew that it would not be a wise thing to do so she kept her head down, not saying a thing.  When Maria kept silent, Jackson had his answer.  He figured Maria did know something but was too scared of Derrick to say anything. Hopefully Dakota can find out what she knows.

Jackson left, sensing that there was more to the story than Derrick had let on.  Although Lacy had tried to cover them up, he could remember a few times he had been a guest at their house he could see some faint bruises under her makeup.  And she always seemed to be wearing long sleeves too.

Derrick, for your sake you had better hope Lacy is alive and just run away.  If you had anything to do with her disappearance don’t look for me to represent you because I hate bullies and wife beaters.

**********

THE SAGUARO RANCH

Brett stomped down the stairs, buttoning his shirt.  When he walked into the kitchen, he saw his twin, Parker at the table, his fork halfway to his mouth staring at him.

“Is my zipper undone or something Parker?” he asked looking down as he buttoned the last couple of buttons and pushed his shirttail into the waistband of his jeans.

“Brett, why in the hell can you not finish getting dressed in your room instead of doing that as you come into the kitchen.  Ma would skin you alive if she saw you doing that,” Parker admonished his younger twin.

“Well Ma is not here,” he said taking a seat opposite Parker.

Before Parker could say anything else, Jenna, their cook, came in carrying an empty cup and a pot of coffee.  She sat the cup down beside Brett, poured him a cup, and then refilled Parker’s cup.

“Breakfast will be right in Brett,”

“Is Ma coming home today or is it tomorrow?” Brett asked.  “If she would only get over her fear of flying, she could have done been home. I know I could not stand that long trip on a bus,”

“I agree but you are not going to change her mind,” Parker said laughing.  “And it is today so one of us needs to be there at the bus station at four o’clock to get her.

Jenna came back into the room, putting a plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits in front of Brett. “Do you need anything else, Parker?”

“No thanks Jenna,” he replied, then added, “Oh before you go, are cabins eight and nine ready for the two families arriving today Jenna?  They were the last-minute reservations we took over the weekend,”

Jenna turned on her heel and gave him a stare.  “I cannot believe you dare to ask me that Parker Randall Carmichael,” she said indignantly trying not to smile, her hands on her hips, tapping her foot against the wooden floor.

“Oh, the golden boy is in trouble,” Brett teased.

Parker shot his brother a dirty look and said, “Sorry Jenna, that was a dumb question to ask,”

“Yes, it was,” she answered back, this time smiling.  “You know everything is ready.”

Parker got up from the table and walked over, picking her up off the floor and giving Jenna a bear hug, causing her to squeal like a teenager.  When Emma first came to The Saguaro ranch as one of the maids, Jenna immediately fell in love with the twins and their sister.  She and her husband had never been blessed with children of their own, so Jenna had adopted the children as her own.  When Parker let her go, she smacked him playfully on the arm and headed to the kitchen to oversee lunch for the arriving guests.

“When you finish dilly-dallying over breakfast, meet me in the barn,” Parker told Brett as he quickly swallowed the last drink of his coffee.  He grabbed his Stetson off the peg on the wall and headed out.

**********

DERRICK

Derrick stomped into his office, growling a good morning to his secretary.  It had been a couple of days since Jackson had left his home, promising to have a private investigator call him about Lacy’s disappearance but so far nothing.

Damn incompetent attorney.  Must be related somehow to the inept police department.  Lacy, you were a pain in the ass when we were married, especially when you found out you were not getting your hands-on part of the company.  You are an even bigger pain now.  If I had my way, I wouldn’t bother trying to find you but have to pretend to be a dutiful loving husband.

His thoughts were interrupted by the buzz from his phone.  He pushed the button saying, “Yeah, what do you want Regan?  And it had better be important,”

“You have a gentleman here; his name is Dakota Renfree.”

“Does he have an appointment and if not set him up with one unless he is selling something. Then send him down to Roger,”

“He has no appointment but said he must see you now.  He also does not want to make an appointment,” Regan told her boss as she watched the man in the office pacing back and forth.

“Let him stew and I will buzz you when I am ready to see him,” Derrick instructed.  If he doesn’t have an appointment or refuses to make one, then he can just cool his heels or go see Roger.

“Is this in regard to a product or idea you are selling?” Regan asked the man timidly.

“No, it is personal with Mr. Hatfield,” he snapped as he continued to pace, upset over the conversation he had just heard.  It was almost like they forgot they were on speakerphone.  I will give you five more minutes of my time and if you don’t show, then I am out of here.  I don’t need this prima donna shit.  My time is not for sitting and cooling my heels no matter who you are or what you say, you condescending ass.

Regan went back to her computer but at the same time watched Dakota out of the corner of her eye. He sort of reminded her of one of those mountain men in those western novels she loved to read but not as unkempt as they were.  She knew that she was 5’4” but from the look of Kota, he would top her about twelve inches. He was dressed in form-fitting black jeans topped with a black and white plaid flannel shirt and well-worn cowboy boots. His ebony hair was pulled back in a ponytail that hung about five inches past his shoulders, had a well-trimmed mustache, and dark eyes that appeared almost black.  His skin was richly tanned from the sun with laugh lines in the corner of his eyes.  Dakota was a walking mass of hard muscle that made her insides quiver with excitement.

As if he could feel her studying him, Dakota stopped in front of her desk saying, “Yes, in case you are wondering, I am one half Dakota Indian, or Sioux.  My father was Dakota, and my mother was Mexican.  My Indian name is Lone Wolf.  Anything else you want to know about me?”

Regan felt herself blush and stammered, “Sorry, did not mean to stare but you are hot,” quickly clamping her hand over her mouth when she realized that should not have spoken what was on her mind, especially to someone who was here to see her boss.

Dakota chuckled and resumed his pacing, glancing at his watch.  Just as he was ready to walk out the door, he heard Regan’s phone buzz, so he decided to wait to see if his “lordship” was going to grant him a few precious minutes of his time.

“Yes, Mr. Hatfield?”

“Is he still there or did you send him to see Roger?”

“He is still here,” she said, glancing over at Dakota.

Hearing that Dakota said loudly, “My time is precious Mr. Hatfield so you either see me or I am leaving…with your secretary for an afternoon of wild sex,”

Again, Regan found herself blushing, her panties dampening at the thought of having sex with Dakota.  “Shall I send him in?”

“Yeah, send the smart ass in,”

Regan hung up the phone, saying, “Mr. Hatfield will see you now Mr. Renfree,” pointing to the closed door into Derrick’s office.

Stopping at her desk, Dakota leaned closer, whispering, “This should not take long, and then you and I are going to have a long lunch hour together.  And you can call me what my friends call me, Kota.”

Before she could reply, Dakota winked at her and headed into Derrick’s office.  When he walked in, he shut the door behind him none-to-gently, letting Derrick read in his actions how annoyed he was at being kept waiting.

“Why is it so imperative that you see me…today with no appointment?  You are lucky that this was one of those days I had some free time,” Derrick snarled, eying Dakota up and down.

Dakota laughed and sat down, sticking his long legs straight in front of him, crossing them at the ankles.  He cleared his throat before saying, “I hear you have a missing wife.”

**********

JULIE

As the surrounding terrain changed into more of a desert look, with giant saguaro cactus almost everywhere you looked and occasional tumbleweeds, Julie knew that she had a decision to make.  She had very little money left and would need a job soon or else she would be sleeping on the streets.

As if Emily could sense Julie’s turmoil, she picked up her stuff and went to sit beside her. “Julie, I know you want your freedom and independence, but I was wondering if you would like to come back to the ranch with me for a couple of weeks?  You can check out the latest job openings and I will make sure you get to town every other day,”

“Get to town? How far is your ranch from Tucson anyway?” Julie asked, her mind already liking the fact that while she searched for a job, she would have a place to stay, and if Emily did not want too much for rent, she could save some money to get out on her own.

Emily chuckled and said, “The Saguaro Ranch is about an hour out of town,”

“Thanks for the offer but I don’t want to beholden to you to make sure that I get too and from the ranch to look for a job,” Julie told her.  “I have enough money to tide me over until I get a job,”

“Julie, I am not taking no for an answer,” Emily said sternly like she used to talk to her children.

Sighing deeply Julie finally agreed to stay two weeks but no more.  No matter the outcome of the two weeks, if she had no job, then she was going to move on.  There were plenty of places out west where she hope to find a job and disappear.

When they pulled into the terminal in Tucson, Julie started to feel extremely anxious, wondering if she was doing the right thing or not.  I guess I should have insisted that Emily check with her sons before asking me to come out to the ranch.  They may not want any visitor without a paying reservation, especially one that is a runaway.

Emily reached out, took Julie’s hand in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze.  “I am so excited to be home.  Loved visiting my daughter and meeting my granddaughter, but it is so nice to get home.”

Julie had nothing to say so she just smiled.  When the bus was parked, Emily got up and made her way to the front of the bus, pulling Julie behind her.

“Ma!” a familiar voice hollered as she stepped off the bus.

Emily turned, letting go of Julie’s hand as she opened her arms to hug her son.  “Brett, you are a sight for sore eyes.  Did Parker come with you?”

“No, we have two families checking in today and you know how Parker is.  He likes to always be there to greet the new arrivals,” Brett told her.  “Let me grab your luggage and we can be on our way.  When I left it smelled like Jenna was cooking her famous chili and I want to make sure there is some left for me,”

Emily laughed and said, “Some things never change with you.  Oh, while you are getting my luggage, I need you to grab Julies too,”

Stopping mid-stride, Brett turned around and asked, “Julie?  We don’t have any guest listed by that name that were coming in on the bus,”

“She is not exactly a paying a guest.  Julie is a friend that I met on the bus who I invited to stay for a couple of weeks until she can get on her feet,”

It was then that Brett noticed a red-haired woman standing a bit back from his mother, playing with the strap on her backpack, her green eyes darting all around, staring at the different people around her.  Brett looked from her to his mother and back with a quizzical look in his eyes, wanting to ask what was going on but sensed from the look his mother was giving him that it was not a good time to ask questions.

“Ah…ah…I don’t have any luggage,” Julie said quickly.  “I just have this backpack,” looking down at the concrete.

“Okay,” Brett said, holding back from asking why she had no luggage.  “I will get your luggage mom and then we can head out.  Can I drop you off someplace…Julie?”

“She is coming back to the ranch with us,” Emily repeated.  “What is wrong with your hearing Brett.  I just told you that no more than a couple of minutes ago,”

“Sorry, getting old and forgetful like someone else I know,” he teased Emily.  He quickly moved over to grab her luggage before she had a chance to smack his arm.

Once he had his mother’s luggage, they headed through the bus terminal and out to the parking lot. Julie followed quietly behind them, continually checking out her surroundings and the people.  She had no idea if Derrick was having her followed or if he even knew she had left town.  It had been a little over two months and she was not sure if Derrick had filed a missing person’s report or hired an investigator to find her. Julie did not believe that he had given up finding her because of all his threats of her being dead before he would let her go and have a new life without him.

Arriving at his dual-cab black truck, He opened the passenger doors for them.  Once they were settled, he went around and stored the luggage in the enclosed cab.  Once settled behind the wheel, Brett asked, “Anywhere you need to stop before we begin the long journey home.  Bathroom breaks?” looking directly at his mom, with a slight smirk.

This time Emily did manage to smack him extra hard on the upper arm with her fist.  “Just drive.  I have sat enough on the bus, and I just want to get home.  You need to stop Julie to get anything?”

“No, I am good, thank you,”

“Forgive my manners,” Emily started, “but I forgot to introduce you two.  Brett, this is Julie whom I met on the bus.  Julie, this is Brett, my son.”

They acknowledged each other and then they headed out of town toward the ranch and the second leg of Julie’s journey to freedom.

**********

DERRICK

“I may have a missing wife,” he said hesitantly as they stared at each other across Derrick’s desk.

“Well according to Jackson, you do, so let’s cut the BS and tell me about Lacy,”

Suddenly Derrick began to chuckle before saying, “Well I’ll be damn.  You must be the investigator Jackson was going to have to get in touch with me.  What the hell took you so long to get with me?”

“It has only been a couple of days Hatfield.  I have other clients, so you just had to wait your turn,” Dakota said.  “Besides, she has always been gone two months, so I figured if you weren’t in a hurry to find her before now, then there was no need for me to rush.”

Derrick gripped the arms of his chair, fighting the urge to tell him to get the hell out of his office and go find another detective on his own; one that would be easier to control than the one Jackson set him up with.  He made a mental note to give Jackson a pierce of his mind for sending Dakota to him.

“What did you say your name was?” Derrick asked.

“Dakota Renfree but my friends call me Kota.  Since you are not my friend, you can call me Mr. Renfree or Dakota,” he said.  “Now tell me about your missing wife,”

Seeing him just sitting there, no notebook, pen, or recorder to take notes.  Derrick snorted and asked, “Are you really a private investigator?  I mean, if you were, wouldn’t you have something to take notes with?”

Kota stood up and took out his wallet, flipped it open, and held it out for Derrick to see his license.  “I do have a recorder here,” as he took one out of his shirt pocket.  “Any other proof you need before we get started?”

“Okay, Mr. Renfree, first off, understand I want to keep this as private as possible.  I have filed a missing person’s report, but they have done nothing to attempt to find her,”

“Okay, tell me from the beginning everything,” Kota said, turning on the recorder before he put it on Derrick’s desk, and then sitting back to listen to the story.  Kota half tuned in to the story, but he mostly paid attention to Derrick’s mannerisms and facial expressions, which told him a lot. He would listen to the story more in-depth when he got back to his office and made notes.

When Derrick finished, Kota said, “Give me a description, any distinguishing marks, tattoos, or birthmarks.  Do you have a recent picture?”

He quickly described Lacy and then handed him a picture of her that he had on his desk. Kota took the recorder, turned it off, and put it back in his shirt pocket.  He held the picture in his right hand.

He stood up, and told Derrick, “I will be in touch.  Now excuse me, Regan and I have a lunch date…and she may not be back for the rest of the day.”

“Back to me when? A few days?  A week?  When?” he asked standing up.  “I want a time, not just a vague I’ll be in touch,”

“These things take time Derrick,” Kota told him.  “Wherever she is, she has a two-month head start on us so it will take time to pick up her trail, if she has left town that is,” and with that he turned on his heel, leaving Derrick just staring after him.

“Insolent pup,” Derrick muttered.  “I will give you two weeks and then I will find another investigator who will give me results,”

**********

REGAN/DAKOTA

Dakota walked out of the office, letting the office door slam behind him.  Walking over to Regan’s desk, he stared at her, crooking his little finger as he gave her a panty-wetting smile as he laid the picture on the desk.

“I only have an hour for lunch.  I get off at five o’clock so can we do it then?” she asked.  “I cannot afford to lose my job if I come back late,”

“Hey, I can always use a secretary although I am not sure how much actual secretarial work would get done,” Kota teased as he walked around her desk, reaching out and pulling her out of her chair and into his arms.

Kota tilted her head back as he leaned down, capturing her lips in a light kiss, his tongue swiping over her bottom lip.  Taking her bottom lip between her teeth, he gave a light tug, his hand traveling down her back to cup her butt, giving it a little squeeze.

“I will see you at five o’clock in front of the building,” he said.  “Be prepared to call in sick tomorrow morning,” as he winked at her. Dakota grabbed the picture and walked out of the office.

**********

THE SAGUARO RANCH

As they drove toward the ranch, Julie sat in the backseat of the pickup, watching the scenery pass by as Brett and Emily talked in the front seat.  When they turned left onto the long drive back to the ranch, all Julie could do was stare at the herd of cattle grazing in one field and then horses in another.

I had no idea Emily was this rich.  She didn’t need to ride a bus home as she could have flown home.  But then maybe she was meant to ride the bus home, sort of like my angel in disguise.  Even if Derrick manages to find out I left the state there is no way he will find me out here.

Julie was brought out of her thoughts when the truck stopped in front of a large one-story adobe home with an extension on each end.

Emily unfastened her seatbelt and turned to face Julie.  “This is our home and the lobby where guests check-in.  We have single guest rooms on the right end of the home and our living quarters are on the other end.  Jenna, our cook, has a room here also.  The rest of the staff live in two haciendas on the ranch, each with their private bedroom.  Well, that is enough information for now so let's get inside and get you settled.  I heard a nice hot shower calling my name,”

Their doors opened and Brett was helping them both out.  Stepping up on the wide porch where several rocking chairs sat, Julie noticed in the distance a large cloud of dust getting closer and closer.  Emily shaded her eyes, watching the dust cloud getting closer.  A few minutes later, a man astride a black stallion with a white mane rode up.  The man jumped off and ran up the stairs, grabbing Emily in a bear hug, lifting her off the porch, swinging her around.

“Parker Randall Carmichael put me down,” Emily demanded, earning a laugh from Brett.

“Wow, twice in one day you got called by your full name. That is a record and I have to mark it down as a great day in history,” Brett said as he went in carrying his mom’s luggage.

As Parker set his mom on her feet, his eyes caught sight of Julie standing there.  Their eyes met and he felt like a lightning bolt went straight through his body.  It was a first for him and he had the sudden desire to know her better.  Julie saw the way that Parker was looking at her and quickly lowered her eyes.

I am married.  Men are no good.  I should not have this weird feeling down there.  It is wrong.Julie thought.

“Hi, I am Parker,” he said holding out his hand.  “Do you have a reservation or are you here to inquire about a job?” as he looked around for another car besides Brett’s truck.

Before Julie could say anything, Emily said, “Parker, this is Julie.  We met on the bus, and I invited her to stay for a while until she can get on her feet.”