Hot on the trail of a cold-blooded killer, a small-town sheriff risks his life--and his heart--with one sexy partner...
Raised in a family of professional bounty hunters, Natasha King knows the dangers of tracking down fugitives--especially when they're wanted for murder. But this is no ordinary mission. This time, it's personal. The suspect is her own long-lost father--and the lawman hunting him down is dangerously close to catching her off-guard...
In all his years as sheriff, Trent Oakley has never seen a woman as strong-willed--or as scorching hot--as Natasha. With her big-city experience and black-belt training, she's his best chance for tracking down the Trinity Ranch killer. Problem is: Can he trust her? As the trail gets hotter, their attraction burns wilder, and soon Trent's not sure who's hunting who. But one thing's for sure: Natasha is one woman who always gets her man...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
March 27, 2012
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Excerpt from Run Wild by Lorie O'Clare
"Natasha?" Greg King glanced up from the file in his hand. "Natasha, the phone?"
"Got it." Natasha grabbed the phone from her desk, ignoring Uncle Greg's disapproving frown.
Patricia Barton, Patty, hurried into the office. "Here's the file you were looking for," she announced, handing the file to Greg before giving Natasha a winning smile.
KFA, King Fugitive Apprehension, had recently hired on two new bounty hunters. Two weeks ago Uncle Greg also had hired a new office assistant. Natasha appreciated the help in the office, but Patty was intent on showing Natasha up, making their daily jobs more of a competition than a team effort. It sucked. Natasha was competitive, and if the prissy little girl wanted to be shown who was the better woman, Natasha would take her down. She had created this job Patty was determined to show her, and everyone else, she could do better.
There was no way Natasha would give Patty the satisfaction of knowing how much she affected her. She returned an indifferent nod and looked away, staring outside through the large windows as she answered the phone.
"KFA," she said quietly, calmly. "How may I help you?"
"I need to speak with Natasha King," a deep, male voice demanded.
Natasha blinked. She'd been answering KFA's phones for seven years, since her uncle opened up shop, and couldn't remember when anyone last called this number for her. She had her own cell, and if anyone wanted to reach her, they called her number, not KFA's. Yet this was the second time today someone had called and asked to speak to her. The first call had distracted her. Now her nerves were on edge.
"This is Natasha." She turned her back on Uncle Greg and Patty and walked around her desk. "May I help you?"
"This is Natasha Nadine King?"
Natasha's heart stopped and she froze. Then her teeth clamped shut when she plopped into her office chair behind her desk, which faced the rest of the office. Natasha didn't use her middle name. Sure, it was on her birth certificate, but Nadine was her mother's name, the woman who'd left Natasha and her father when she'd been four years old. "Nadine" wasn't even on her driver's license. Not even the middle initial.
"Who wants to know?" she demanded, keeping her voice low as she shot a furtive glance toward her uncle. For once she was glad Patty was kissing up to him. It was keeping him busy. Otherwise he'd be towering over Natasha wanting to know who was harassing her.
"This is a personal matter between Natasha King and her family."
Her family? Her family, for the most part, was standing five feet from her. There were her two cousins, Marc and Jake, but both of them had moved out and weren't working for KFA anymore. And Aunt Haley, of course, who didn't like Patty any more than Natasha did, was probably either in the kitchen or somewhere else in the King house, which was attached to the KFA office. The office had once been a screened-in front porch, but Uncle Greg had converted it over shortly after he'd opened his doors for business.
"This is Natasha," she said hurriedly. "What can I do for you?"
"Natasha." There was no emotion in the man's tone. "Where's your father?"
"My--" Natasha bit off the word "father." Who the hell would be asking her about her father? Obviously no one who knew her. She was the last person to ask if anyone wanted to find George King.
"Yes, your father, Natasha," the man said crisply. "Tell me where he is." He was rather demanding.
"I have no idea," she drawled, her heart beating once again as she leaned back in her chair and examined her fingernails. It was the second time today. The first caller had been more polite, more conversational, but the question had been the same. Why did they want to know where her father was? What had he done?
She waited out the silence, curiosity besting her. At the same time she straightened her hand and stared at her short nails and the recent manicure she'd given herself. After her last breakup and Bill Sanders' informing her he couldn't be in a relationship when he wasn't sure who wore the pants between them, Natasha had decided to confiscate some of Aunt Haley's nail polish and paint her nails and her toes. They even matched. There was a first.
Natasha wasn't in the mood to offer the caller a more informal title.
"I need you to come to Weaverville."
"Yes, Weaverville, California."
She ran her fingers through her long black hair, immediately tangling them when she neared the ends, then yanked her hand free and stared at the tousled ends with casual indifference. Somewhere in her desk drawer was a hair stick she could wrap her hair around and pin to the back of her head.
Natasha opened the drawer and spotted it immediately. At the same time she glanced up, which was a mistake. Uncle Greg was watching her, raising an eyebrow. He was listening. Patty had returned to her smaller desk along the adjacent wall and was tapping away at her keyboard, probably blogging. The stupid twit seemed to forget anyone could read it. Natasha would check Patty's blog later and read all the hateful things she wrote about her.
"Where is Weaverville, California?"
"We're in the Trinity Alps."
"I'm in L.A. That's eight or nine hours from here."
This time her caller waited out the silence.
"You can come here, fax, or mail any information." Natasha wasn't in the mood for nutcases. What was her father up to now?
"Your father is in serious trouble. You're needed in Weaverville if you have any intention of helping him."
She blew out a breath. Answering the phone for KFA all these years didn't make dealing with people like this any easier. Everyone thought their world was coming to an end and KFA needed to drop everything and run to their assistance immediately. All she could do was slow the caller down and gather information. "Sir, I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."
"Trent, Trent Oakley. Does Monday work for you, around two P.M.?"
"Why are you asking where my father is and demanding to see me?" she asked. "I've already told you I don't know where he is and no, Monday at two P.M. doesn't work for me at all."
She pictured Trent Oakley to be some bulging-gut mountain man, wearing a cowboy hat and plaid shirt and spitting chew after every other sentence. If he called her "little woman" she would hang up on him.
"This needs to be discussed in person." Trent allowed another pause.
Maybe he didn't realize what Natasha did for a living. He'd have to do a hell of a lot more than that to persuade her into doing what he wanted.
"Natasha," Trent said, lowering his voice. Apparently, he felt they'd spoken long enough to address her by her first name. "I'm extending you a courtesy. I'm giving you the opportunity to meet with me before any charges are officially made."
Natasha sighed. "Give me your number and I'll call you back," she said, resigned. "We're a busy office. Don't count on me being there."
He merely grunted, gave her his number, and hung up without saying good-bye. She pulled her phone away from her ear slowly, trying to digest everything he'd just said or, better yet, what he hadn't said.
This was two calls now. The first caller hadn't identified himself but had simply asked if she were related to George King. They'd asked where he was. She'd said she didn't know and they'd hung up. Now this caller, this Trent Oakley, had taken the conversation a bit further. It was all too bizarre. It had been years since she'd last seen her father.
Even if she did take off from work, which wasn't an option, drive clear up to Northern California, which she couldn't do, it made absolutely no sense at all why anyone would want to talk to her before pressing charges against her father. She had no say in her father's life and never had.
"What was that all about?"
Natasha jumped and stared at her uncle, who loomed over her desk, watching her carefully. "Is something wrong with George?"
Patty hopped around her desk and sidled in next to Greg, her bright brown eyes wide with curiosity. "Is there something I can help with?" Which was her way of snooping into a conversation.
"No," Natasha and Greg said at the same time.
"Oh." Others might be offended by the snub, but Patty rocked up on her heels, spinning around with the files she held in her hands, and disappeared from Natasha's line of vision. Uncle Greg was a large man and initially Patty's not cowering around him had impressed Natasha.
Most people took one look at her uncle, who was six feet, four inches tall and built like one of those professional wrestlers on the WWE shows, and forgot what they were going to say. He could be intimidating as hell, and he did have a temper. But he was also the man who practically raised her and was more of a father than her real father had ever been.
Natasha saw the concern in his eyes, and although she hated talking about either of her parents with anyone, she and her uncle were also talking about his brother. She'd overheard more than once what her uncle thought of Natasha's father, not only for willingly dropping Natasha off at Uncle Greg and Aunt Haley's house several times a week throughout her childhood, but for eventually leaving her with them permanently. They didn't care for George's self-focused lifestyle and indifference for anyone but himself.
Her father was a gambler, a con artist, and a lady's man. Natasha had overheard him telling Uncle Greg that his world was no place for an adorable little girl. At the time, Natasha had hung on to the words "adorable little girl." She'd adored her dad, and truth be told, she didn't hate him now. George King wasn't a bad man, just a bad father, which made the conversation she'd just had with Trent Oakley even more mysterious, if not just plain weird.
"I don't know if he's in trouble, or not," she said, and gathered her hair behind her head, twisted it into a knot, then slid her hair stick through it to hold.
"What was that phone call about?"
Uncle Greg had been a cop for twenty years before becoming a bounty hunter and had taught Natasha to focus on details and on how to read people. The look on his face suggested he believed his brother had done something wrong. Greg's large stature suddenly appeared harder than stone and he crossed his thick arms against his chest as he stared down at her. He'd already drawn his conclusions and wasn't happy.
Natasha felt a wave of defensiveness as she looked up at him.
"I need a drink." Natasha pushed her way out from behind her desk. "Patty, can you handle the phones for a few minutes?"
"I can handle them all day." Patty waved over her shoulder, suddenly no longer acting interested in Natasha's conversation. She jumped on the opportunity to show Greg she was quite capable of handling the office without Natasha's help.
Greg followed Natasha out of the KFA office and into his home. Once Natasha had loved it here but with her cousins off doing their own thing, and new bounty hunters and an annoying office assistant on staff, there were days when she dreaded coming to work. It never used to be like that.
Natasha walked through the spacious living room, down the hall, and into the kitchen. It still smelled of bacon and maple syrup from breakfast. In spite of the house being an empty nest, more or less, Haley King still didn't know how to make a small breakfast. Natasha wouldn't be the one to point it out to Haley. There were days when bacon, toast, and juice grabbed from the kitchen was all she ate all day. She really should be more grateful for her new assistant, in spite of Patty's prying methods and competitive nature. It was nice not wearing a Bluetooth all the time and being able to have a conversation without continual interruption. Or at least it should feel nice.
Natasha entered the empty kitchen, wondering what was wrong with her. She loved her job. She'd always loved this job. Or was it being needed that made her truly happy? She sighed heavily. That was just plain stupid. She was needed around here as much as she'd always been. It was just these strange phone calls about her father that had her upset.
"What's going on?" Greg didn't waste time the moment they were in the kitchen. He stood in the doorway and crossed his arms, resuming the stance he'd held at her desk, and watched her walk around the island to the refrigerator.
Natasha helped herself to a cold bottle of water. "This morning someone called about Dad." She might as well start at the beginning. That phone call had bothered her, but she'd done her best to put it out of her head and not worry about it. Her father was a grown man, and he'd never sought her out for help. It didn't appear he would this time, either. If he was in a jam, there wasn't anyone on the planet better at getting themselves out of trouble than her dad.
"Oh? Why didn't you tell me?" Greg cared about his brother, which was why he treated Natasha as a daughter. Greg was all about family. Her father didn't get any of those qualities.
She'd always been grateful to her aunt and uncle. Natasha was always included in their family vacations. They had made sure she got to school every morning, and even during college her aunt and uncle were always there to help out financially and sing her praises when she did well.
Unscrewing the bottle, she put the lid on the counter and stared at the perspiration dripping onto her hand. "You were still out in the field working the Murry case." It wasn't a good answer, or even accurate. There had been times she could have mentioned it. Talking about her father made her feel awkward for some reason. "A man called asking questions about him."
"He asked if we were related and if I knew where he was." She glanced up. "That was it."
"Where was he from?"
She frowned. That should have been something she remembered foremost about the first phone call. Natasha might not be a private investigator, cop, or bounty hunter. But she'd been surrounded by law enforcement all her life. There were a few things she'd picked up along the way.
"His number was blocked." She shook her head. "Uncle Greg, I guess it upset me a little."
"You've been distracted all day."
"And I'm sorry." She wasn't worried about her job being on the line. There was an unwritten clause in her job description: She would never be fired. As long as she kept up her work performance. She could do this job in her sleep, and had a few times. "The first phone call struck me as odd, although I couldn't put my finger on why," she admitted. "But this second caller was a bit more blunt. Dad's in some kind of trouble, Uncle Greg."
Her uncle didn't bat an eye. "Tell me about the second call."
"He was annoying." She began pacing the length of the island. Downing more of the water before she put the bottle on the counter, she then pulled out the stick she'd just wrapped her hair around and began combing through her hair with her fingers. "Obviously, whoever these people are who are looking for Dad, they don't know a lot about him. If they did, they sure as hell wouldn't be calling me asking about him. Or demanding I drive up to Weaverville," she explained, throwing her hands in the air.
"Weaverville?" Greg frowned. "Isn't that up in the Trinity Alps?"
"Yup. Whoever called this morning wasn't the same man who called me just now. The caller just now had a deeper, gravelly voice." She gathered her hair at her nape and scowled ahead of her, staring at a bowl of fruit on the counter. "The first guy who called was gruff, almost mean sounding. He wanted to know if I was related to George King. I said I was. He wanted to know where Dad was. I said I didn't know. He hung up. That was it."
Natasha grabbed one of the apricots, took a bite, and looked at her uncle. He was watching her, waiting to hear the rest.
"The second guy, the call just now, was more conversational, I guess." He had annoyed the hell out of her. She took another big bite of the fruit and began pacing. "I didn't like the way he demanded I drop everything and come talk to him in person. Like he thought I would be able to give him more information about Dad if I saw him than over the phone."
"Which you couldn't do."
"Which I couldn't do," she repeated. "I told him I didn't know where Dad was, and although he seemed a bit surprised by that, he accepted my answer."
Her uncle tapped his lips with his finger, studying her. Natasha knew the look. He wasn't so much focusing on her as he was processing what she'd just said. Her uncle had always looked out for his younger brother, even when he hadn't deserved it. Maybe George King was Natasha's father, but she wasn't under some childhood illusion that he was a good man. Her father loved her and was always happy to talk to her, when he was around, but he treated her like a distant friend, not a daughter. The man she stared at now was the closest she'd ever had to a dad.
"Did he tell you anything else?" Greg finally prompted.
Natasha finished off the apricot, tossed the pit in the trash can next to the refrigerator, then wiped the juice from her hands on the dishcloth hanging from the refrigerator handle. "He told me his name was Trent Oakley. He's in Weaverville, California, and wants me there Monday at two P.M. to discuss my father."
"Are you going?"
Natasha hadn't given any thought to actually following through with the demand. Her uncle studied her, appearing serious about wanting to know. She admitted curiosity over these sudden phone calls. If her father was in some kind of serious trouble, she should help him, shouldn't she?
She glanced through the other kitchen door that led into the adjoining dining room and in the direction of the office. "Honestly, I hadn't thought about it. I guess Patty is trained," she began, musing out loud. "She'd probably love the office to herself," she muttered.
"It wouldn't be more than an overnight trip." Her uncle sounded as if she'd already made up her mind. "You can take one of the Avalanches. Number three is running well."
Natasha needed to switch gears quickly to keep up with her uncle. He never let her use any of the Avalanches. Ever since he had bought two more black trucks that matched the first one he owned, the three trucks were used out in the field and by her uncle and aunt but no one else. Natasha had never considered asking to use any of them. City transportation had worked nicely for her over the past few years. The bus picked her up outside her apartment and dropped her off a block from KFA.
The back door opened and Aunt Haley entered, her hair windblown and her cheeks red. "I can't believe I feel cold," she said, grinning broadly at both of them. "It's in the seventies and I'm ready to dig out a jacket."
"Natasha might be heading up north Monday," Uncle Greg announced, his voice a low grumble, although unless Patty had snuck into the living room she wouldn't overhear them.
"What? Why?" Haley pulled a coffee cup out of the cabinet and reached for the coffeepot. "Where up north?"
"Someone wants me to go to Weaverville, California, to talk to me about Dad," Natasha explained, giving the incredibly abridged answer.
"About George?" Aunt Haley's interest was piqued. Although she just got her private investigator's license a couple years ago, she had bounty hunter's blood in her, too. Aunt Haley loved a good hunt and a good mystery.
"Natasha has received two phone calls today asking about George," Greg explained, pushing away from the doorway and moving to the counter to pull down his cup.
Haley immediately took it from him and filled it with coffee. "You have?" she asked Natasha. "Are you okay, sweetheart? Did they upset you?"
"No," Natasha answered slowly. "The first call didn't bother me as much as it struck me as weird that they would call me. And I just hung up the phone from the second call," she added, waving her hand in the direction of the office. "Uncle Greg overheard the call and thinks I should go up there."
"What did they say to you?" Aunt Haley nursed her full cup as she sat at the kitchen table.
Natasha grabbed her water bottle, understanding they would now hash through and dissect every word of her phone conversations. It was what her family did, and overall, this usually meant she left the table with a clearer head. Although at the moment she was still pretty upset with Trent Oakley being so demanding.
Both her aunt and uncle sat facing her, listening attentively as she went over both phone conversations again. "The second call made me mad because the guy was such an ass," she added. "He made it sound as if I didn't have a choice about seeing him on Monday."
"Sounds like George is in some serious trouble," Haley said, glancing at her husband.
The two exchanged looks and Natasha watched them, knowing they were speaking volumes with the glances they exchanged with each other.
"I'm not sure if I have a current phone number for him, or not," Greg muttered, digging in his pocket and pulling out his cell phone.
"Try giving him a call." Haley looked ready to grab her husband's phone and make the call herself.
Greg scrolled through his phone and shook his head. "I don't have his number. I'll do some checking, though," he said.
"I'll go up there," Natasha decided. "I admit I'm curious about Dad."
"Something isn't right." Aunt Haley blew on her coffee as she held it between her hands and rested her elbows on the table.
"I'd have to agree." Uncle Greg leaned back, stretching his legs under the table. "Is there anything else you can think of about either call, Natasha? Even if it's trivial, we need all information on the table."
"Trent Oakley might be some kind of cop, or something. He said it was urgent he talked to me before deciding if any formal charges were pressed, or not."
Her uncle was a good man, but a bit too protective at times. When he shifted his attention in her direction she felt it coming on.
"Maybe it would be better if I drove up there with you."
"You don't have to do that." She didn't hesitate. "I'm going alone, Uncle Greg. But I'll call you the second I know anything."
He stood without commenting and she watched, wary and knowing looking to her aunt wouldn't offer her support. Aunt Haley would side with Uncle Greg.
"What was that man's name again? Trent Oakley?" he asked, walking out of the kitchen.
Natasha didn't go into her uncle's downstairs office very often. It was his private sanctuary and where he often brooded when a hunt turned bad. She followed him now, though, with her aunt on her heels, and stood next to his desk, watching as he ran the check on the name. There were advantages to so much law enforcement surrounding her. Her uncle had some kick-ass programs at his fingertips.
"Trent Oakley," Greg announced. "Or make that Sheriff Oakley."
"Sheriff?" Aunt Haley said, leaning in from where she was on the other side of her husband.
Natasha didn't say anything but instead stared at the picture of the man who'd demanded she appear on Monday.
"Thirty-five years old, black hair, green eyes, two hundred pounds, and six foot, one inch, according to his driver's license." Greg read the computer screen. "He was born and raised in Weaverville, California, and has been sheriff of Trinity County for six years now. Kind of young for a sheriff," he muttered, running his cursor over the screen as he debated where to click next.
Even after Greg changed pages, searching for more information on Oakley, the picture of him stuck in Natasha's head. Trent Oakley wasn't at all how she'd imagined him looking. When she placed the gruff voice she'd heard on the phone with the picture of him online, which came from a driver's license, it created a more thorough mental image.
Trent had thick black hair that waved around his face in soft curls. His green eyes were dark in the picture and stared hard at whoever took the shot. He wasn't smiling, nor was he frowning. Instead it looked as if he would take the camera from the photographer if he believed them incompetent in any way. He was a lot taller than her but not as tall as her uncle or cousins. At two hundred pounds she imagined him well built, a regular mountain man. The picture had shown glimpses of a plaid shirt. She'd gotten one attribute about him right.
There was a tilt to his head. She'd learned to read people's body language from the best in the business. That slight tilt often indicated strong confidence or, at least, a high self-esteem. Natasha imagined him competent in his job, thorough, and well aware of his bad-boy good looks. He'd spoken to her on the phone as if he wasn't used to anyone telling him no. She wondered how many ladies in his county told him yes. The report on him didn't say he was married.
"He's not bad looking," her aunt murmured, glancing past her husband at Natasha.
"We don't care how he looks," her uncle grumbled.
Natasha worried her thoughts must have shown on her face when her aunt gave her a small smile.
"I'll call Sheriff Oakley back and let him know I'll meet him on Monday." Natasha left her aunt and uncle and headed through the house to the KFA office, her stomach twisted in knots over her unexpected road trip and concern for her father.
Patty sat at Natasha's desk, typing in reports Natasha usually handled.
"Thanks for holding down the fort," Natasha said, moving around her desk.
Patty didn't turn to acknowledge her but continued entering the report. "No problem at all. The filing is done. Would you run a couple messages to Greg?" she asked, as if it were her job to find something for Natasha to do.
It was on the tip of Natasha's tongue to snap at Patty and demand she get out of her chair. Natasha allowed a second to pass, but Patty never stopped typing.
"The report can wait a minute, Patty. I need to talk to you."
That got Patty's attention and she looked over her shoulder, giving Natasha a quick once-over before raising her lashes and lifting one eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Get up." Natasha didn't snap. She remained calm, staring at Patty until the woman sighed, reluctantly scooted the office chair back, and stood. "Have a seat," Natasha said, waving a hand to one of the chairs on the other side of her desk.
Patty might be attractive if she weren't such a bitch. The woman stuck out her chin, walking with indignation around the desk, then plopped down hard enough in the chair that her ass slapped against the smooth surface. She made a show of clearing any expression from her face as she clasped her hands rigidly in her lap and stared Natasha down.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I'm going to be gone Monday and Tuesday of next week. I think you're up to speed on how we do things around here, but if you aren't, now is the time to let me know so we can familiarize you and make sure you're comfortable."
Patty's entire expression transformed. "Really? You're leaving? For two days?"
Natasha bit her lip so she wouldn't make a sly remark about Patty's enthusiasm. The woman couldn't make it any clearer that she wanted Natasha's job.
"Yes, I am. I'm going to make a few phone calls, but then I'm going to head out for a couple hours. It will be a good opportunity to see how you do running the office on your own. I'll be back before five, and of course you can reach me on my cell. If you have questions, we'll go over them when I return. Sound good?"
"Yes, it does." Patty licked her lips, her excitement making her beam.
Natasha didn't care what Patty thought. Her being here made leaving possible, and for that much Natasha needed to be grateful. She reached for her phone and held the pose for a moment, staring at Patty until the woman came back down to earth, more than likely stuffing her dreams of victory to the back of her head.
"Oh," she said, giggling and making a show of running her hands down her pristine gray high-cut dress. "I'll run these messages to Greg."
"A piece of advice." Natasha had to speak quickly when Patty ignored her and headed to the door leading into the house. "Greg prefers business not be brought to him when he's inside his home. He'll come get his messages. Unless it's a life-or-death emergency, don't chase him down with phone calls. He won't like that."
"Okay," Patty said slowly, staring longingly at the door leading into the living room. Then returning the messages to the message spindle, she stabbed the papers on it and turned to her small, simple desk and organized the few pieces of paper on it.
Natasha ignored Patty, turning her attention to the phone call she needed to make. Her message pad had been pushed to the side when Patty had made herself at home at Natasha's desk. After a moment of reorganizing her things, Natasha placed the pad next to her phone and dialed the number.
She mentally prepared herself for what she'd say and a few questions she wanted answered before leaving. Trent picked up the phone after the first ring.
"Trent Oakley," he answered, his deep voice crisp and authoritative.
Natasha breathed in, ignoring the quick flutter in her stomach as she straightened. "Sheriff Oakley, this is Natasha King with KFA," she began.
"I'm calling to confirm our two o'clock meeting on Monday."
"Good. I've taken the liberty of making reservations for you at Pearl's. It's a bed-and-breakfast. If you have something to write with, I'll give you the address and phone number now."
She had hit it on the mark when she'd guessed him so confident he wouldn't imagine anyone telling him no. Grabbing her pen, she wrote down the address to Pearl's Bed-and-Breakfast along with the phone number. "You were mighty sure of yourself that I'd agree to come up," she couldn't help saying.
"We're talking about your daddy here. Most people care about their parents." There wasn't any indication he was making fun of her or joking in any way. He sounded serious.
"I would like to know what this meeting is about."
"We'll talk in person."
"Sheriff Oakley, quote me a law that says you can't tell me over the phone, or tell me now why you want to see me in person."
There was silence before he muttered something Natasha didn't catch. "Ms. King, I'm doing you a favor and giving you the opportunity to defend your father."
Natasha's breath caught in her throat. "Is my dad up there?" she asked, her voice catching.
"How long has it been since you last saw your father?"
She hated people asking her that question. Everyone jumped to conclusions when she answered. Over the years, she'd never found a perfect answer to prevent more questions or looks of pity. She and her dad didn't have a typical father-daughter relationship, but she still loved him and knew he loved her.
"It's been a while."
"You care to narrow that down for me?"
He was a pushy bastard. Something told her by Monday evening, after meeting this Trent Oakley, she'd no longer think him handsome. He was going to be one of those people whose abrasive personality stole all good looks away from them.
She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of sounding defensive. "I'd have to say around three or four years."
"Three or four years, huh. Are you telling me you don't remember when you last saw your father?"
She remembered. It had been right before Christmas. When he'd shown up unannounced, Natasha had hurried out and bought presents for him, thrilled he would be with them over the holidays. Her father left on Christmas Eve, forgot to say good-bye, and called that night, laughing good-heartedly at his absentmindedness, and told her some friends had invited him out for Christmas. It had never crossed George King's mind that his daughter might want him there for the holiday.
"It was almost four years ago," she said, hearing the chill in her tone.
Trent Oakley let out a low whistle. "You sure about that?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. Are you suggesting I'm lying?"
"No. I am not lying," she snapped, gripping the phone harder as she pressed it against her ear. She began pushing the end of her pen, opening and closing it repeatedly as she frowned. "You haven't told me yet what this is about."
"We'll discuss all the details Monday. I'd suggest driving up Sunday. I reserved your room for Sunday night. Once you've checked in give me a call. You'll get your details then." Trent hung up the phone.
"Of all the--" Natasha slammed her phone on the receiver.
"What's wrong?" Patty's eyes flashed as she spun her chair to face Natasha.
"Nothing." Natasha stormed out of the office. So much for having fun shopping for a new outfit or two before heading up to the mountains. She had half a mind to cancel the trip and tell the pompous sheriff to go to hell.
Sheriff Oakley didn't know George King very well. Her father had never needed her help before and probably didn't need, or want, her help now.