Dark Secret



"Come on, Colby," Sheriff Ben Lassiter yelled, feeling like a fool running alongside the tractor. "You have to be reasonable. Get off that damn thing and listen to me for once in your life. You're being stubborn!"

The ancient tractor bounced along in the gathering dusk, shooting up clouds of powdery dirt to spray over Ben's immaculate sheriff's uniform. Colby waited until he was totally out of breath and at a complete disadvantage before she stopped the tractor and sat staring moodily out over the field. Very slowly she pulled off her leather work gloves. "I'm getting tired of these visits, Ben. Just whose side are you on, anyway? You know me. You knew my father. The Chevez family don't belong here and they certainly don't have the right to try to force me to turn over my brother and sister to them."

Ben swiped at the dirt covering him, gritting his teeth against his frustration. He took several deep breaths before he answered her. "I didn't say it was right, Colby, but the Chevez family have the De La Cruz brothers on their side, which means a lot of money and power. You can't just ignore them. They aren't going to go away. You have to talk to them or they're going to take you to court. People like the De La Cruz brothers don't lose in court." He raised his hands to grasp her small waist before she could jump off the tractor by herself. Resisting the urge to shake some sense into her, he lifted her down easily, retaining possession for a moment. "You have to do this, Colby. I mean it, honey, I can't protect you from these people. Don't put it off any longer."

Colby pushed away from him, a small gesture of impatience, swinging her head so her disheveled hair spilled out from under her hat, hiding the sudden sheen of tears swimming in her eyes. Ben quickly looked away, pretending not to notice. A man would have to kill for her if she cried, and anyone witnessing her tears would be very likely to take the brunt of her anger.

"Fine." Colby began moving across the field at a fast pace. "I presume you have the entire lot of them camped on my porch?"

"I knew Ginny and Paul were gone tonight." Ben had ensured his sister-in-law invited Colby's sister and brother over for homemade ice cream.

"Like that was hard to see through." Colby tossed the words sarcastically over her shoulder at him. She had known Ben since kindergarten. She was certain he persisted in thinking of her as a wild, untamed little girl, not quite bright, when she was perfectly capable of running a ranch all by her little lonesome and had been doing so for some time. She wanted to box his thick skull.

"Colby, don't go in there like a powder keg. These people aren't the type to be pushed around." Ben easily kept pace with her.

"Pushed around?" She stopped so abruptly that he had to rock back on his heels to keep from running her over. "They're trying to push me around. How dare they come here acting so arrogant I want to sic the dog on them! Men!" She glared at him. "And another thing, Ben. Instead of kissing up to Mr. Moneybags and his entourage, you might consider what is going on out here. All my equipment keeps disappearing and some little gremlin is messing with the machinery. That's your job, isn't it?-not escorting the rich and infamous around." She began moving again, her small feminine body radiating fury.

"Colby, you and I both know it's a bunch of kids playing pranks. Probably friends of Paul," Ben said, trying to soothe her.

"Pranks? I don't think stealing is a prank. And what about my missing person's report? Have you even tried to find Pete for me?"

Ben raked a hand through his hair in sheer desperation. "Pete Jessup is probably off on a binge. For all you know that old man stole your things to pay for his alcohol."

Colby stopped again, and this time Ben did run into her and had to catch her shoulders to keep from knocking her flat. She slapped his hands away, a fine outrage smoldering in her. "Pete Jessup quit drinking when my father died, you turncoat! He's been invaluable around here."

"Colby," Ben said, his voice persuasive and gentle, "the truth is you took in that homeless old coot out of the goodness of your heart. I doubt if he did