Peril By Ponytail

  • Publisher: Orange Grove Press
  • Series: The Bad Hair Day Mysteries , 12
  • Release Date: June 16, 2020
  • Genre: Cozy Mystery
  • Available Formats: eBook and Paperback
  • Digital: 9781952886027
  • Paperback: 9781952886034

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Marla’s honeymoon at an Arizona dude ranch turns deadly when murder threatens to unhorse her new happiness in this award-winning cozy mystery.

Hoping for a romantic honeymoon at an Arizona dude ranch, hairstylist Marla Vail and her detective husband Dalton arrive to find a series of mishaps plaguing the resort. A nearby ghost town is suffering similar problems. Is it mere coincidence that Dalton’s Uncle Raymond owns both properties? When Raymond asks for their help in finding the culprit, Marla and Dalton eagerly accept, but the case quickly escalates into murder.

With sleuthing more natural to Marla than riding a horse, she delves into the investigation and discovers long-buried family secrets. Suspects include environmental activists, saguaro poachers, water rights advocates, and relatives closer to home. Marla has to saddle up, rein in the clues, and find the killer before she’s forced to join the spirits on the haunted hillside.

Third Place Winner in the Arizona Literary Awards!

Peril by Ponytail ropes in the reader in Nancy J. Cohen’s captivating new tale, which deftly braids together deadly secrets, long hidden resentments, and romance on the range.” Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crime of Fashion Mysteries

Awards & Accolades:

Readers FavoriteBTS Award Readers Choice FinalistArizona Award

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“Cozy fans will have fun.” —Publishers Weekly

“As usual, it’s just a matter of time before Marla risks life and limb to help her husband solve a case that’s bigger than either of them anticipated.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This is a good addition to Cohen’s long-running series. The slight bit of paranormal activity adds a nice touch.”— Susan Mobley, RT Book Reviews

“Ms. Cohen is the queen of the cozy mystery. With a large cast of interesting supporting characters; plenty of dangerous, suspenseful action scenes; an attractive, well-drawn setting; and a charming representation of the Marla-Dalton relationship, Peril by Ponytail will more than fulfill the expectations of Ms. Cohen’s fans and win the admiration of new readers.”—Phil Jason, Florida Weekly

“Even though Marla and Dalton were helping to solve a family mystery, they never lost sight of the fact that it was their honeymoon. I thought this story line was portrayed tastefully, cute and left some things to the imagination of the reader…If you would like to read an enjoyable, entertaining and engaging cozy mystery, then Peril by Ponytail is your book!”—Open Book Society

“Peril by Ponytail is a captivating story, the kind that draws the reader in and deftly involves them in a complex mystery. You might think that you have guessed who the baddie is, but the way this story has been written throws you off, takes a lot of different twists and turns, and the suspicion falls on so many people. I found it to be an incredibly well-crafted story with a neat plot and good characters.”—5 Stars! Anne-Marie Reynolds, Readers Favorite

“The author does a great job between all the characters, the storyline, the descriptions and the scenery. Each of them draws you into the book and you never want to stop until the story ends.” —Babs Hightower, BTS Book Reviews

“Family is a major theme in Cohen’s latest mystery…Peril by Ponytail is an excellent introduction to the series for anyone who hasn’t read previous books. Marla and Dalton are starting a new life, and they’re visiting people and a setting that are new. To someone who has lived in Arizona for a lengthy period of time, Marla’s view and opinion of Arizona is funny. However, it’s actually an excellent introduction to part of the state with the climate and setting. And, Marla and Dalton, mature characters with a trust in each other, and their shared innuendos, are interesting sleuths.”—Lesa Holstine, Lesa’s Book Critiques

Peril By Ponytail is a fast-paced, suspenseful, and adventuresome tale that informs as well as entertains the reader.”—Stephanie Saxon Levine, Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore

“What I loved most about this book, besides the story itself, was the great descriptions of Arizona and the scenery. I also loved that the book had a lot of Arizona history included in the story.” —Cindy at Book Splurge

“The characters are well-developed and the settings – the ranch, the mine, and the ghost town project – are so well described, it is easy to visualize the scenes.”— Christa Nardi, Christa Reads and Writes

“The author outdoes herself with this one. The story is a fast-paced adventure. It keeps you guessing. I tried to fit all the pieces together along with Marla – like a jigsaw puzzle. This book is a great way to spend the weekend – romance, excitement, and mystery with a clever and exciting plot. It’s the perfect read for any time of the year.”—Yvonne Hering, Socrates Book Reviews

“Marla is the typical nosy amateur sleuth, always finding a way to draw people out getting them to slip some key information. She passes that along to Dalton and they bounce theories off on one another. The couple makes a great team, with an easy, natural banter between them.”— Julie at Romancing the Book

“There is plenty of drama, mystery, romance, history, humor and a clean read too.  I enjoyed the characters and would like to get to know them better.” —Readlot

“The murder mystery in this book was very well done. The ending was a complete surprise, which is something I really enjoy in a mystery…This is a great read for a lazy weekend.”— Teresa Danner Kander, Book Babble

“The danger escalates and even when you think all has been settled and solved, there are more secrets and danger to come.”—Laura’s Interests

“If you like cozy mysteries and/or enjoy a Western setting, this is a fun read.” —I Wish I Lived in a Library

“Blending a dude ranch, ghost town, and the beautiful Arizona countryside with murder and mayhem, Cohen once again delivers a tantalizing tale…The story is filled with suspense and mystery, but also humor, touches of romance and family bonding. This is a rip-roaring fun cozy murder mystery loaded with all the right elements for a delightful read.”—Mason Canyon, Thoughts in Progress

“Author Cohen removes Marla from her comfort zone in colorful Florida and instead explores a unique Arizona setting with its many environmental issues…Raymond’s plans to develop a ghost town into a tourist attraction add a fun historical element and provide vivid descriptions…Fans of this long-running series will be relieved to know that Marla and Dalton will of course find the time to fit in enough seduction, as well as humorous banter, to please romantics and mystery lovers alike.”—Cynthia Chow, Kings River Life Magazine

“A mystery that kept me guessing with fun characters.”—WiLoveBooks,

“Nancy J. Cohen once again delivers a delightful cozy mystery with the latest escapades of Marla and her partner Dalton.”—Night Owl Reviews

“The very idea of the girly-girl Marla honeymooning at a dude ranch was funny enough to make me want to read Peril by Ponytail, latest in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries, and I found myself highly entertained by the scenario…Secrets abound, motives keep cropping up and danger seems to be everywhere but there’s fun to be had watching Marla do her thing.” —Lelia Taylor, Buried Under Books

“Peril by Ponytail ropes in the reader in Nancy J. Cohen’s captivating new tale, which deftly braids together deadly secrets under the sand, long hidden resentments, and romance on the range.”—Ellen Byerrum, Author of the Crime of Fashion Mysteries

“Another winner from talented author Nancy J. Cohen. Saddle up and come along for a great read!”—Maggie Toussaint, author of the Dreamwalker Mysteries

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2015 by Nancy J. Cohen

Chapter One

“How can everyone be dead?” Marla Vail asked from the rear seat of the car. Weary after a four and a half-hour flight from Fort Lauderdale to Phoenix, she leaned against her husband Dalton’s broad shoulder. Except for the driver, they were the only passengers in the battered Jeep Cherokee.

“I’m just kidding. Craggy Peak is a ghost town,” Carol Campbell explained, her hands on the steering wheel as she navigated through airport traffic. “Most of the people who lived there in the heyday of the copper mine are long gone. Wayne’s dad plans to turn the place into a tourist attraction. I’d hate to see him fail when he’s pouring so much money into it.”

Wayne was Dalton’s cousin who’d invited them to say on his dude ranch for their belated honeymoon. Although she’d met her husband’s family at their wedding, Marla didn’t remember much about them. She had recalled Carol was a lithe blonde with a perennial tan, and Wayne had a ruggedly handsome face as befit a born and bred rancher.

“So Uncle Ray is renovating this former mining camp?” Dalton asked.

“That’s right. We can use the revenue to supplement our income from the ranch. The resort is open year-round, but it gets quiet in the summer. With the heat, people head for cooler climates. An additional influx of tourist dollars would raise our bottom line. In case you’re wondering, I work as the ranch’s financial manager.”

Half listening, Marla tickled her way up Dalton’s arm. He smiled at her in that special way he had just for her. She hoped they’d have enough privacy at the ranch.

When Dalton’s cousin had offered them a suite at his resort, her husband had leapt at the chance. He’d accepted before informing her. Not wishing to rock the boat after ten months of marriage, she’d bitten her tongue and feigned joy at the prospect. But if he had bothered to ask her first, she would have chosen to spend their romantic getaway in the tropics. Paradise to her meant a lounge chair on the beach and a tall rum drink.

Her brows lifted in surprise as she glanced out the window. The desert had more vegetation than she’d thought. Although the reddish-brown dirt lacked grass, plenty of shrubs and low-lying trees dotted the landscape, along with a variety of cacti. Arizona had another good thing going for it. The highway was in top condition—smooth paving with artistic designs embedded into the walls and bridges. Those creative displays alone impressed her at how well the state maintained its property.

“Who owns the ghost town?”

Dalton’s question jolted her attention back to the conversation. She tilted her head to listen more carefully.

“Raymond owns title to the land and the buildings, same as he does for our resort. He’s lucky most of the structures are still standing.” Carol glanced at them in the rearview mirror. “I love his idea, but he may have taken on more than he can handle. The site is having problems lately, and I can’t help wondering if they’re related to the incidents on our ranch.”

“What do you mean?” Marla asked, curious to learn more about her relatives by marriage. This being a second time around for both her and Dalton, Marla had vowed to get more involved in his family. Taking on the job of stepmother to his teenaged daughter, Brianna, had been the first step. Already she missed the girl, who had stayed home under the care of Marla’s in-laws.

“Bad things have been happening lately. We’ve had a fire in the kitchen. Someone opened the corral gate and let the horses out. Car tires have been slashed. Then this morning, a water heater sprang a leak and flooded the dining room. That’s why Wayne couldn’t come to the airport. He’s supervising the cleanup.”

Marla elbowed her husband. “Did you know about these problems?”

His sheepish grin gave her the answer. “Wayne mentioned them when we spoke on the phone.”

“I see.” She gritted her teeth, suddenly aware of why they were taking a honeymoon in the desert. Not only had Dalton’s cousin offered them a free stay, but likely he’d asked for her detective husband’s help in catching the culprit. Maybe someone with a grudge was at the root of their problems. “Has Raymond owned the Last Trail Dude Ranch for a long time?”

Carol waited to reply until she’d changed course on the highway. They had a substantial ride to reach the resort, nestled in the mountains a distance away.

“Raymond inherited the property from his father. The original purchase dates back to 1870, when a Mexican landowner purchased the site. After he died, an Easterner took it over and invited his friends to stay on the ranch. This guy extended the business into a resort. Raymond’s dad purchased the property from him in the fifties and expanded the facilities. When he died in ’99, Raymond assumed the reins.”

“How many staff members do you have?” Marla had looked up their site online. The place appeared to be large enough to require a map to navigate.

“We’ve a hundred and twenty employees. Wayne will introduce you around. You’ll have plenty to do if you want to participate in the activities, or you can simply hang out and relax.”

Dalton took Marla’s hand and gave it a squeeze. The look in his eyes told her what he planned to do in their spare time. Her heart fluttered. Even though this might not be her ideal vacation spot, being with her husband was what mattered.

She’d have a discussion with him later about his presumptive decision making.

Settling back in her seat, she watched the desert landscape zoom past. Most noteworthy were the tall, branched stalks stretching toward the sky.

“What are those cacti called?” she asked, still unused to the dry earth and lack of grass.

“Those are our saguaro.” Carol pronounced it sa-wa-ro. “They grow as a single stalk for up to seventy-five years before branching out. The plant can reach sixty feet in height and may live as long as two hundred years. It’s native to our Sonoran desert, and its white blossom is our state flower. They only thrive up to thirty-five hundred feet in elevation, though. Our ranch sits at twenty-eight hundred, so you’ll see plenty of them.”

Marla’s ears popped, telling her they were climbing. While Dalton conversed with Carol, she sagged against the seat cushion. She must have dozed off, because when she opened her eyes, they were navigating the hills. Magnificent vistas opened before them as the road dipped and curved, the pink mountainsides dotted with greenery. Boulders piled by the roadside.

Marla eyed the towering rocks with trepidation. She hoped they didn’t have landslides here. This terrain was so foreign compared to flat Florida.

At the base of another hill, they finally turned down a dusty road toward the ranch, passing several horse corrals and a flower farm along the way.

“Look, there’s two deer!” She nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.

“Actually, those might have been elk,” Carol said as they sped past. “We spot more of them than deer around here.”

A sign for the Last Trail Dude Ranch came into view. Carol entered a private driveway that led to the main lobby. This building stood apart from the others. Single-story pink adobe structures dotted the property. Flowering plants and attractive shrubbery provided splashes of color against paved walkways.

Carol pulled into an empty space and shut off the ignition. “What’s the sheriff doing here? It’s Sunday. He should be home relaxing.” She shoved her door open and exited.

Marla had noted the labeled black SUV parked in the main lot. So had Dalton, judging from his springy step as he emerged from the rear seat. He reminded her of a hound who’d just picked up a scent, especially when she sniffed a distinctive aroma in the air.

Outside, her gaze zeroed in on the animals milling inside a fenced corral. “Look, horses!”

“We are at a dude ranch,” Dalton said with a grin.

“Yes, but I didn’t realize they’d be so many different colors.”

“They’re beautiful creatures. I would have liked to visit here when I was younger, but Mom rarely spoke about Uncle Ray. I knew little about him and his family until we researched them for our wedding.” He lowered his voice so Carol wouldn’t overhear his last remarks.

Carol popped the trunk, and Dalton lifted out their luggage. He set their bags on the pavement until they got their room assignment.

“I’d better see what’s going on.” Carol cast a worried glance at the sheriff’s car.

“Maybe Wayne is reporting the latest incident to him,” Dalton suggested. “Is there evidence the leak was anything other than wear and tear on the water heater?”

“I have no idea. Either way, Wayne hasn’t told any of our problems to Sheriff Beresby before now. He likes to keep things in the family.”

“That’s why he invited you, isn’t it?” Marla said, poking her husband.

“He invited us to stay here and enjoy the facilities. Let’s see what this is all about.”

They followed Carol up the front steps and into the building. A fragrant floral scent pervaded the spacious lobby. It came from a bouquet of fresh flowers set on a central round table. Marla observed the western décor with a sense of pleasure she hadn’t expected. Dark brown leather couches in an L-shape faced a huge stone fireplace, while carved wood tables and accent pieces enhanced the space. Indian art, metal sculptures of cowboys and horses, and other knickknacks added to the theme. The tied-back drapes had a bright southwestern design that matched the colors in a large area rug.

An attractive redhead at the front desk glanced up at their approach. “Carol, I see you’ve brought our guests. How was the drive?”

“Not bad. Marla and Dalton Vail, meet Janice Sklar. Jan is Director of Reservations.”

Janice flashed them a smile. “I expect you’ll want your room keys. You have Hacienda Number Seventy-Five. Here’s a map.” She circled a few buildings and offered a quick review of their room location and other highlights. “Do you need help with your luggage?”

“I’ll get it, thanks.” Dalton stepped up to the counter to complete the formalities. That included the key to a loaner car from Wayne.

“What’s happening, Jan? Why is the sheriff here?” Carol asked.

The fortyish lady thumbed her finger at an inner door. “Ask your husband, hon.”

“This way,” Carol told her guests. She led them through a door marked Private.

They entered a long corridor with offices on either side. Marla spied a conference room, sales department, catering office, and a collection of computer equipment.

“Here’s where I work.” Carol indicated an office marked Accounting. “And next door is Wayne’s place.” She led them to a corner suite from where male voices emanated.

Two men stood as they entered. Marla recognized the tall man behind the desk. While Dalton’s ebony hair was peppered with silver, Wayne’s dark brown head hadn’t changed. She couldn’t recall how many years younger Wayne was from Dalton’s forty-five. He was even more imposing than she remembered with his square jaw and massive shoulders. Seeing him in the context of the ranch, she knew how he’d gotten his name.

Move over, John Wayne. Your replacement is here.

“Dalton, it’s great to see you. Marla, what a pleasure.”

Wayne circled his desk to greet them personally. They exchanged embraces before Wayne formally introduced Sheriff Beresby.

“Luke, this is my cousin, Dalton Vail, and his wife, Marla. Dalton, I’d like you to meet Sheriff Luke Beresby. I’ve been telling him how you’re a topnotch homicide detective back home.”

The men shook hands. The sheriff’s somber face was lined with ridges like a dry riverbed. He had a thatch of gray hair and a droopy mustache. From his paunch and general features, Marla estimated his age to be in the mid-fifties.

“Wayne has high praise for you.” The sheriff’s keen gaze scrutinized Dalton.

“He’s been known to exaggerate,” Dalton said with a grin.

Marla stood by, feeling as though she’d suddenly entered a men’s club. The leather furnishings, bookshelves full of bound hardcovers, and paintings of Indian battle scenes on the walls added to the ambiance.

“What’s going on?” Carol asked, glancing between her husband and the sheriff.

Wayne clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Luke came to tell us that Garrett Long is dead.”

Carol gasped and jerked away. “What? How?”

“He was found by a couple of hikers on the Snakehead Trail,” Beresby replied. “Looks like he took a tumble off a hillside, although I’ve yet to determine what he was doing out on that ledge by himself. Garrett Long was a ranger with the national forest service,” he explained to Marla and Dalton.

Marla heard the doubt in his tone. Did he suspect this accident was more than it seemed? What did forest rangers do besides enforcing rules and chasing off squatters?

“Why come to us with this news?” Carol said, her face pale. “I mean, I’d want to know, but shouldn’t you be talking to his co-workers?”

The sheriff’s lips compressed. “Long had a note in his pocket, ma’am. Maybe you know something about it. The note was a reminder for him to call Raymond, your father-in-law.”

Wayne’s forehead creased. “Dad and Garrett were riding buddies and often made dates together. Did you talk to Dad?”

“Not yet. I suppose I’ll find him over at the ghost town?”

“Yep. He’ll be upset to hear about Garrett. It’s a shock to us all.”

The sheriff eyed Wayne. “Did your daddy ever locate that worker who vanished?”

“Not yet. I’ve urged him to file a formal report, but he’s thinking the guy ran off for some reason. Dad has enough trouble keeping the other laborers in line. They’re saying Eduardo saw an apparition on the hill, and it may have been the goddess of death summoning him to his doom. They’re a superstitious lot. The men were ready to walk away from the job, but the foreman convinced them to remain. We’re having problems on the ranch, too. I’m beginning to wonder if these incidents are related.”

“Oh? What kind of problems?” Sheriff Beresby said.

Wayne swept his hand toward the door. “Just minor stuff so far. I don’t want to keep you. If you see Dad, please tell him to come home in time for dinner. His nephew has arrived.”

“So, are you the sole investigator in town?” Dalton asked, accompanying the sheriff down the hallway while the others trailed after them.

Uh-oh. Dalton’s fascinated expression didn’t bode well for their vacation.

“Pretty much,” the sheriff replied. “Our office covers the unincorporated territory in these parts, so we’re stretched thin. The larger towns have their own police departments.”

“Maybe I can buy you a drink sometime, and we can swap stories. I’d enjoy hearing about your experiences.”

“I’ll bet you have some good ones, too.”

“Florida has its share of wackos.”

Marla nudged him. “Dalton, I’m sure the sheriff has enough to keep him busy. And we’re here for our honeymoon, remember?”

Carol rallied to her defense. “That’s right. Wayne, we need to settle our guests in their room and then give them a tour of the resort. Or would you two like to rest? There’s a three-hour time difference from back east. You must be exhausted.”

Marla glanced at her watch. “It’s four o’clock here and seven back home. We should switch to your schedule and stay awake until later. A tour sounds great.”

“Wayne, if you wouldn’t mind taking over, I need to talk to the chef about those cooking classes starting next week. I’ll see you guys at dinner.”

“No problem, you run along. Thanks for doing airport duty.” Wayne gave his wife a kiss before she dashed off. “Come on, we’ll get your luggage, and then I’ll show you the grounds. Did Jan give you a resort map?”

“I believe so.” Dalton still carried the papers given him by the receptionist. He rustled through them, retrieving a printed diagram.

“Is our room far from here?” Marla asked. The various buildings were located along winding paths and partially hidden by shrubbery.

“You’re up this hill.” Wayne pointed on the map. “Your loaner car is parked there, too. We can walk, but it’s a haul for your bags. I’ll drive you in the golf cart.”

He and Dalton loaded their luggage, and then they climbed into the vehicle. As they rumbled to a start, Wayne pointed left toward another road. “Down that way is the lake. It’s where we hold our weekly barbecues. You’ll want to sign up for that event. And a hiking trail heads off from there. We do nature walks several times a week.” He glanced at Marla’s sandals. “I hope you brought sturdier shoes or riding boots.”

Oh, yeah, like you’re going to get me on a horse. The only thing I want to ride is my husband. Horsepower to her meant a car engine. As for rodeos, she’d rather watch the polish chip off her fingernails. She’d seen the shows listed on the weekly activity list.

Then again, a rodeo might be a good place to meet other guests and sound them out about the staff. And maybe she’d learn a thing or two about ropes that could come in handy.

“What is it?” Dalton asked in a solicitous tone. “Are you tired? We can rest if you’re feeling jet-lagged.”

“No, I’m fine. I’m just thinking about what we can do in our room later once we have some privacy.”

“Ah.” His hand gripped hers, and he gave her a sexy grin.

They drove up a curving road and past a series of one-story adobe structures that Wayne said housed ordinary hotel rooms. The view of the distant mountains took her breath away. She could see how their colors might change with time of day. Now they appeared hazy and bluish in the afternoon sun.

Further along the road were individual buildings with lanais. They were the casitas. Apparently the higher the elevation, the more expensive the accommodations.

Suddenly, the foothills were right at their doorstep. A mound rose on the right with tall brown grasses amid shrubbery, cacti, and boulders. The rocks graduated into a mountainside.

“Here’s your hacienda. Go check it out.” Wayne helped unload their luggage curbside at a separate unit with stone chimneys.

Two lounge chairs and a large potted cactus decorated a covered front porch. What a wonderful view they’d have while relaxing there or on the rear patio. Marla waited as Dalton swiped his key card. Before entering, he handed her a duplicate key.

Inside, she surveyed an upholstered sofa facing one of the fireplaces. Its zigzag design matched the avocado, brick red, and tan colors from the carpet. Plush armchairs added to the cozy ambiance. A kitchenette occupied one alcove with a small fridge, microwave, and coffeemaker. Good, that meant they wouldn’t have to rush out in the mornings. They could drink their own brew at that table with four wicker chairs.

Glad to settle in, Marla strode ahead through an interior door to the adjacent bedroom. A king-sized bed dominated the space, while spacious drape-lined windows provided an awesome mountain view. One entire wall consisted of built-in wooden drawers and cabinets. Two nightstands, a chair, lamps, and a desk completed the furnishings. Another fireplace took up one corner.
“Where’s the TV?” Dalton halted inside the space after wheeling in his suitcase.

“We don’t have them in our guest rooms,” Wayne hollered from the front door. “The ranch offers enough to keep you busy. You’ll be worn out by the evening.”

Not too worn out to enjoy our privacy, I hope. Marla put down her purse and went to examine the bathroom. She shrieked upon noticing a dark brown spider streaking across the marble-tiled shower.

Wayne rushed inside. “Oh, that’s a wolf spider. I’ll get it.” He grabbed a wad of tissues as Marla stepped out of his way and let him take charge.

At least the bathroom had modern amenities, with a granite countertop, double sinks, and generous counter space. Nonetheless, she might want to leave a light on here at night to avoid further insect encounters. Scorpions and rattlesnakes inhabited the desert, too, didn’t they? She’d better look under the sheets before getting into bed.

Scratch the rustic atmosphere. I’ll take a luxury hotel any day.

After refreshing herself, she joined the guys outside for the rest of their tour. She’d hung up a few of her garments and would unpack the remainder later.

Trying for a more positive outlook, she imagined herself relaxing in a lounge chair and admiring the mountains. In fact, lying around reading magazines, sitting by the pool, or visiting the spa sounded ideal. Dalton could engage in all the sports he wanted while she chilled out. The best part of this stay was not having to cook. Plus the dry air provided a welcome change from Florida’s humidity and made being outdoors a pleasure.

Wayne led them on a winding path with abundant landscaping and shady trees. Some of the plants were labeled, like that prickly pear cactus. It had a purplish tint and Mickey Mouse shaped ears. She particularly liked the spreading mesquite tree with its fern-like leaves, and the beautiful palo verde tree with its bright green trunk and leafy canopy. Never mind the nature walk. She could learn about the native plants by exploring the resort. Despite its lack of grass, the grounds had their own beauty.

Wayne introduced them to other guests they passed along the way. Like a good host, he knew everyone’s name. From the friendly greetings, she surmised that he was well-liked.

“This is the main building,” he said as they approached a large adobe structure in a central location. “It holds our restaurant, card room, lecture hall, library, and a lounge with a television. The gift shop is located here, too.”

Under the covered patio were wood benches with wagon wheels at either end for support. She halted on the brick flooring while Wayne pointed out a bulletin board listing the day’s activities. Signs for the Laundry and Bike Shop pointed down an alleyway.

Marla noted the limited dining hours. “Is this where we’ll come for meals?”

“You can eat either here or in the staff cafeteria since you’re family. You’re welcome to join me and Carol at home in the evenings. I’ll give you directions. We’re expecting you for dinner tonight at least since our kids are eager to meet you. We don’t get relatives out this way very often.”

He ended on a slightly bitter note, making Marla wonder at the sentiment behind his words. Dalton’s mother rarely spoke about this side of the family. How had Kate become estranged from her brother, Raymond?

“Did you get your water heater fixed?” Dalton asked, shading his face against the sun.

Wayne’s lips thinned. “Yes, but we had a mess in there. The plumber said a valve had been opened. We have the air-conditioning going full blast to help dry things out.”

“A valve wouldn’t turn by itself, unless it had failed because the unit was old.”

“I know. These troublesome incidents have been happening more often lately. I can’t prove anyone is behind them, but they worry me.”

A guy sauntered past in a plaid shirt, cowboy hat, and boots. He waved to Wayne on his way. From his lean body and lined face, Marla surmised he was one of the staff.

“That’s Nick, a wrangler,” Wayne said, confirming her theory. “Let me show you the horses. You’ll want to make reservations for your rides. You have ridden before, right? If not, the boys give lessons but you have to sign up early.”

Marla smelled the animals the closer they got to the corral. It appeared emptier than when they’d first arrived. As they descended a slope toward the riding station, she noted far to the left a place where the horses appeared to be led for the night. There wasn’t just one fenced corral. It was a series leading out almost to the hills.

“Here’s our nature center.” Wayne pointed out a structure with a flight of stairs. “Stop by and talk to our naturalist when you have a chance. He’ll explain the exhibits. That building beyond has a ballroom for conferences or large social affairs.”

Marla noted a tennis court, children’s playground, and arena with bleachers down a path to the side of the last building. It would be fun to explore the resort’s nooks and crannies. Then again, if Dalton went riding in the mornings, she would have time on her own to laze around. Her shoulders sagged. Relaxing would feel good right about now. Either the jet lag was catching up to her, or she was hungry. This would be three hours later back home.

Dalton nudged her. “We’ll have to sign up for the breakfast ride. They make blueberry pancakes with bacon and scrambled eggs.”

Oh, joy. “Sure,” she said, not wishing to disavow him of the notion that she’d be joining him. Maybe she should give it a try. She’d taken a lesson or two in her youth. It couldn’t be so difficult to catch on again. And the thought of eating breakfast in the great outdoors had its appeal, minus the bees and flies.

She swatted away a fly, realizing they were much more in abundance here than in South Florida. No mosquitoes, though. The dry air took care of those pests.

“Hey, Jesse,” Wayne hollered to a wrangler with a trim black beard and dark eyes to match. He was busy putting away some equipment. “I’d like you to meet my cousins.”

“One minute. I’ll come out through the tack room.” He disappeared behind the building in front of them.

Marla’s sandals crunched on gravel as the paved walkway ended. She needed better shoes. Not only was this terrain hillier than she’d expected, but being near horses brought to mind unforeseen hazards. She didn’t care to step in something unpleasant.

Several closed doors faced them on the beige structure ahead. Signs indicated the Wrangler’s Roost, Riders Entrance, Game Room, and Staff Only. The last door burst open, and the man named Jesse strode toward them. Marla’s gaze zeroed in on his tar-black hair, mustache, and beard.

Her eyes narrowed. That tint was suspiciously uniform. Did he dye his hair?

Wayne introduced them. “Jesse Parker is the man I’d recommend if you need lessons, although any of our wranglers would suit. Jesse has a broad-based knowledge and can answer any questions you might have about the horses or the ranch.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jesse said with a polite expression. He didn’t offer his hand, likely because he’d been out in the field.

He looked fairly young, maybe in his late twenties, but his eyes held years of experience and a hint of inner pain. What drew men to become wranglers? Did they like horses more than people? They still had to work with guests at the resort. Maybe it was in their blood, like dog lovers.

A pang hit her for her own pets. She hoped Lucky and Spooks were doing well in their absence. Thankfully, the dogs were fine after being sedated by a killer who’d used them to lure Marla into a trap. After she’d escaped, Dalton had rescued their precious pets.

“You take good care of these people, you hear?” Wayne advised Jesse. “This is their first visit to Arizona.”

“Is that right? Where do you guys live?” Jesse hooked his thumbs into his belt. He wore a dark brown cowboy hat, plaid shirt, and jeans tucked into a pair of high boots with spurs. His belt carried a cell phone, radio unit, and big knife in a leather sheath.

“We’re from Florida,” Dalton replied, giving him a onceover.

“Dalton is a police detective back home,” Wayne remarked. “We had a problem earlier today with the water heater near the dining room. A valve opened, and the floor got flooded. I’m troubled by the incidents we’ve been having lately and am hoping Dalton might shed some light on them.”

“No kidding? Is that why I saw the sheriff’s car here earlier?”

“Uh-uh. He came to tell us Garrett Long is dead. His body was found out on the Snakehead Trail by a couple of hikers.”

“What? That’s impossible.” Jesse’s tan faded under his sudden pallor.

“I know. It’s hard to believe Garrett would be so careless as to fall off a ledge. Hopefully, the sheriff’s office will investigate and determine what happened.”

“You don’t understand. He must have gotten too close. I’ve gotta go.” Jesse spun and dashed back into the tack room, slamming the door while they stared after him.

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