Carson set the hot-pink roses on the bedside table before tying the balloons to a handrail against the far wall. “I’ll make sure she gets more in the morning.”
When he finished the task, he hugged his sister, hating to see her look so worn-out. Not that he’d tell her as much. She was a beautiful woman, but she’d always considered herself less attractive than her older sisters. It was something about looking more like her mother, whereas the rest of them took after their dad. Carson knew it was baseless nonsense. But Scarlett had once filled his favorite boots with rocks and flung them into an irrigation pond after he’d told her she looked like a cartoon giraffe. He’d been twelve.
And he’d learned not to tease her.
“How are you holding up?” he asked as he pulled away, taking an extra minute to look in her eyes.
As the recipient of the blackmail note, Scarlett had borne an extra burden before their mother’s fall. She’d been given the message during a confrontation with one of the actors in Winning the West at a Hollywood nightclub. A guy she’d dated briefly. Scarlett had gone to LA, wanting to set the record straight with the dude before he showed up in Wyoming to do the film. During their argument, a man neither of them knew had slipped her the paper. The message implied that Paige had had a different identity prior to marrying Carson’s father.
Scarlett had been caught flat-footed when Paige had the accident before she could share the information. She’d told her siblings in the hospital, but regretted not speaking up sooner, during the hours when Paige had gone missing the night before.
“I’m fine.” She nodded, then went to work around Paige’s bed, straightening the already straight blanket, fluffing the pillow behind her mom’s head. “No news from the private investigator you hired to look into Mom’s past?”
“No.” Carson knew Scarlett hadn’t been keen on the idea, but her older sisters had been worried about the danger a blackmailer presented. “But in all fairness, the guy has only just started making inquiries.”
For the first few days after Paige’s fall, her health had been the number one priority and the family’s time had been consumed with that.
“Dad will be angry when he finds out.” Scarlett paused in her busywork, turning worried blue eyes toward her brother.
In the quiet of the room, the balloons bumped one another as they swayed from the air-conditioning blowing through a nearby vent.
“No, he won’t.” Carson had watched his stern father crack under the fears for his wife after her disappearance and then her fall. And even before that, Donovan McNeill had been dealing with his own father’s reemergence in their lives after a long period of estrangement. The stress of the last year had changed him. “He’s got enough to bear right now just worrying about her. He texted me a little while ago to tell you he’ll be in around midnight.”
The fact that Donovan had texted him in itself told Carson a lot about how his father had changed. Carson had opened his home to his estranged grandfather, Manhattan-based resort mogul Malcolm McNeill, when the old guy showed up in Cheyenne. Donovan hadn’t spoken to Carson for weeks afterward, refusing to acknowledge the billionaire father he’d bitterly cut out of his life decades ago. But now, Donovan seemed to have moved past that, too worried about his wife to care about the old grudge.
“Okay. Thanks.” Scarlett dropped into the chair closest to the bed and held her mother’s hand, careful not to bump the IV line. “How’s the filming going at the Creek Spill?”
Thoughts of Emma filled his head. Her scent. Her touch.
The danger she was in.
“Everyone is still settling in.” He wasn’t ready to say anything about Emma when they’d only just met. No matter that he’d moved her into his house. “Shooting starts tomorrow, though.”
Scarlett stared at him expectantly. Had his sister already heard rumors about him spending all day with a sexy stuntwoman?
“Damn it, Carson, don’t make me ask. Have you seen Logan King or not?” She leaned closer, one of her dark curls falling onto her forearm.
“Sorry.” He’d been so wrapped up in thoughts of Emma, he’d forgotten about her sister’s tangled connection to one of the stars of the film. “I’ve been busy making room for the extra stunt animals they brought for this thing. When they wanted to house animals, I didn’t realize they’d be high-strung Spanish dancing horses that needed a whole damn barn to themselves.”
“Spanish dancing horses?” Scarlett grinned. “You mean like Andalusians?” At his nod, she continued excitedly. “They’re some of the best-trained animals in the world. I doubt they’re high-strung.”
His thoughts strayed to Emma again, as he remembered her working on the complex commands with Mariana. The horses knew how to fall, roll and do a series of complicated jumps.
He’d started out the day worrying about how Emma would do with the animal. Now, he was far more concerned about how she’d fare with a bastard of an ex circulating among free men again.
Before he could respond to his sister, two nurses entered the room, pushing a rolling cart between them. It amazed him how many different tests they needed to run on patients.
“I’m going to let you handle things,” he murmured to his sister before kissing her on the cheek. “But I’ll keep an eye out for Logan and let you know how the shooting is going tomorrow, okay?”
She nodded while the nurses moved the cart closer. “Sure thing, Carson. Thanks.”
He didn’t need to check his watch as he left the hospital room. He knew that Emma would be long asleep by now back at his ranch. But that didn’t slow him down any.
He’d rest easier once he was at home, under the same roof with her, personally making sure she stayed safe. The fact that he would relive every second of that kiss in his dreams tonight was just an added bonus. And something he couldn’t help.
* * *
Emma stood on the balcony of the suite Carson had given her long after dinnertime, staring out at the ranch under the rising moon. She knew the moon was the same size everywhere, but right here, where she could see it break over the horizon, it was a huge white spotlight turned on the Creek Spill. She wrapped her flannel shirt tighter around her to stay warm against the cool night breeze. She hadn’t brought a bathrobe, so she’d put on the flannel over the pajama T-shirt she wore with an old pair of running shorts. Summer was warmer in southern California.
The balcony under her feet was made of smooth planks covered by a big woven rug in sunset colors. The wooden chairs were made of narrow logs, the knots still visible, the cushions as thick as her mattress back home. She’d switched off the lights in the room behind her so no one roaming around outdoors would see her up here.
Or at least they wouldn’t see her well. She’d been drawn outdoors by that big glowing moon, but now that she was out here, she took a minute to orient herself. The main house overlooked stables and a lighted swimming pool, along with numerous barns and sheds, all landscaped and much of it fenced. The buildings she could see, however, were small compared to the stables and barns where the stunt horses were kept and where Zoe was staying with many of the other crew members. She’d read online that the Creek Spill and its neighboring ranch, the Black Creek, were a combined fifty thousand acres, an amount of land that had boggled her mind.
It made her wonder how the owner of all that property had time to watch her ride a horse today.
Carson had an army of people working for him. She understood that now after meeting his housekeeper, who had shown Emma her room. A maid had brought up her dinner, which had been prepared by a cook. Knowing there were so many people on staff in the house had helped her feel a little less awkward about sleeping in Carson’s home. It wasn’t as if she was alone in the house with him.
Deciding she needed to stop thinking and start sleeping, Emma was about to return to