Critical Error

One decision changed his life.

Nathan Hollister nearly died in a war zone and the experience made one thing crystal clear—breaking off his engagement was a terrible mistake. He arrives at his ex’s ranch to make amends, but gunfire erupts before he can.

Someone wants her dead.

Cassie Miles is used to being abandoned, first by her mother and then Nathan. But when an attempt is made on her life, she can’t protect herself and the horses she’s rehabilitating. Accepting Nathan’s help is the only answer.

A hazardous mission.

Nathan won’t let anyone harm Cassie. Convincing her to give him a second chance, however, is impossible. As the danger creeps closer, the risk heightens. One critical error could cost Nathan everything...again.


Chapter One

“We have a problem.”

Cassie Miles tossed a glance toward the barn door. Papa Joe was moving in her direction, his long stride hampered by the orthopedic boot clasped on his right foot. A crumpled cowboy hat hid his thinning gray hair and shadowed his eyes. Cassie tightened her grip on the mane comb. Her horse, Starlight, nickered softly as if picking up on her tension.

What now? Cassie was tempted to duck back inside the stall and ignore whatever new problem had arisen. She was drowning in trouble as it was. Bank account running close to empty? Check. Delays in construction of her nonprofit horse rehabilitation center? Check. An aging grandfather with a heart condition who refused to give up fried foods? Check. Add in the creepy texts and phone calls she’d been receiving lately…

A shudder rippled down her spine. She’d changed her phone number twice, but her stalker uncovered it each time. Cassie had reported the communications to the Knoxville Police Department, but there wasn’t much anyone could do. Whoever was sending the messages used different burner phones. She kept telling herself it was nothing, but things were getting increasingly scary. The texts included details about the clothes she wore, her hairstyles, and the errands she’d been on.

Sugar plum. That’s what he called her in every text. Cassie had passed plums in the grocery store last week and nearly thrown up right there in the produce section. She’d never be able to see the fruit again without fear twisting her insides.

Cassie loosened her grip on the mane comb. Her fingers ached from holding it so tightly. She focused on her grandfather. “What’s wrong, Papa Joe?”

He frowned, the wrinkles along the corners of his mouth deepening. “It’s Eric.”

Eric Leighton. Twenty years old and autistic, he was the closest thing Cassie had to a little brother. They’d grown up together on Papa Joe’s small ranch. Eric and his mother, Bessie, lived in a house on the far end of the property. She’d arrived in Knoxville as a single mother, desperate for a job and little money to her name. Papa Joe had taken Bessie and Eric in. Just like he’d done with Cassie one year later.

She’d arrived at her paternal grandfather’s house as troublesome twelve-year-old with a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder. Papa Joe’s patience and steadiness had softened the rough edges caused by an early childhood full of neglect. He was the best man she’d ever known.

Papa Joe, Bessie, and Eric. They were her family.

“Bessie called,” Papa Joe continued. “Eric isn’t home yet.”

Concern rippled through Cassie. Dusk was approaching fast, and Eric feared the dark. The route to his house was a ten-minute horse ride.

“Eric left over thirty minutes ago. He should’ve arrived home by now.”

“Bessie drove the route to the river but didn’t see him. The banks are overflowing from all the rain we’ve had the last few days. She thinks Eric got confused about where the bridge is and lost his way.”

It was possible. Eric consistently used the same route from his house to Papa Joe’s place, and vice versa. Any disparity, like a fallen log along the path, or in this case, the overflowing river banks, upset him. Cassidy set the mane comb down on a ledge. “I’ll ride out and find him. Can you call Bessie to let her know?”

He headed for the barn office while Cassie darted into the tack room. She snagged Starlight’s saddle, and within three minutes, the white gelding was ready to go. Cassie mounted her horse just as Papa Joe came hobbling out of the office. “Wait.”

He carried a handgun in one hand, along with a holster. Papa Joe offered the items to Cassie. “Take this with you.”

“I don’t need that.” Cassie knew how to shoot, thanks to Papa Joe’s training, but she wasn’t particularly fond of guns.

“There have been some strange things happening on the property lately, not to mention those creepy texts you’ve been getting. Take it just in case.” Papa Joe met her gaze. “It’ll make this old man feel better.”

Her stalker couldn’t have anything to do with Eric’s disappearance. There had been several mishaps on the property, but they were most likely attributed to the construction crews coming and going. Cassie wrestled with the urge to argue with Papa Joe, but it would waste time. And she wouldn’t purposefully worry her grandfather. With a sigh, she accepted the gun. Cassie made sure the weapon was loaded and the safety was on. Then she secured the holster in the small of her back before tugging her shirt over it. “I have my cell. Call if Eric makes it home before I find him.”

“Will do.”

She clicked her tongue and tapped Starlight’s flank with her heels. The horse obediently moved forward, and moments later, they were flying across the pasture.

Warm spring wind rippled Cassie’s ponytail. Dandelions poked through the tender blades of grass and the woods near the river were flush with foliage. She knew every inch of this land. Had spent thousands of hours learning its secrets as a child. For the last eight years, she’d been living in North Carolina—first for college and then for work. Moving home had been a good decision.

Cassie slowed Starlight as they neared the woods. The trail leading to the bridge was wide enough for a vehicle. It was cleared regularly of debris and the trees were trimmed. Eric wasn’t the only one who used this path. They all did.

“Eric! It’s Cassie. Can you hear me?”

The rushing sound of the river dividing the property swallowed her words. Cassie swung her gaze left and right, searching for any sign of her surrogate little brother.


She kept calling. The sun was setting fast, leaching color from the sky. It worried her. These woods became pitch-black at night, something that would terrify Eric. His horse, a gentle palomino named Casper, was well-trained, and Eric was an excellent rider. Still, he could’ve been hurt…

Papa Joe’s concerns about her stalker flared in Cassie’s mind. Goose bumps broke out across her skin and the weight of the gun settled in the small of her back became heavier. She shook off the nerves. Entertaining wild theories wouldn’t help. Neither would freaking herself out.

At a fork in the trail, a flash of color caught her eye. There. Eric had been wearing a red shirt today. He must’ve gone left inside of right. Probably gotten himself turned around.

Cassie steered Starlight toward the small cemetery. It was family only, generations of Miles, all in the same place. Her father and grandmother were buried here. They’d both died before she’d arrived to live with Papa Joe. Her father in a car accident before she was born, her grandmother of cancer.

Casper, Eric’s horse, came into view. He was standing under the branches of a giant oak tree and nickered at the sight of Starlight.

Cassie’s breath hitched. Eric lay crying in a fetal position a short distance away, near a weathered tombstone. His red shirt and blue jeans were a sharp contrast to the green grass.
She dismounted and raced to his side. What had happened? Had she been wrong about Casper? Had the horse been spooked by something—a snake perhaps—and thrown Eric?

Dropping to her knees, Cassie gently touched his shoulder. Blood speckled his neck. More was in his hair.

“Eric, what happened?”

He didn’t answer. His eyes were clamped shut, tears flowing down his face. Cassie’s heart broke. She continued to speak to him in soothing words while fumbling for the cell phone in her pocket. Wind whispered across her ponytail, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Cassie spun.

A man in dark clothes and a ski mask rushed her. Cassie half rose, instinctively protecting Eric still lying on the ground. The attacker slammed into her with the force of a linebacker. She collided with a tombstone. Her head rapped against the unyielding concrete and stars exploded across her vision. The pain stole her breath.

Cassie blinked to clear her vision. The holstered handgun pressed against the small of her back. She reached for the weapon, but her attacker was on her in an instant. She attempted to fight him, frantic movements born of panic and instinct, but her petite form was no match for his brute strength.

He secured her wrists behind her back. Then he yanked Cassie to her feet, pressing her against the ancient oak tree. Bark tangled with her hair. Bile rose in the back of her throat as the weight of his body pushed against her. The ski mask hid his features. Even his eyes were dark recesses of evil that sent terror shooting through her veins.

She screamed.

He clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, silencing her cry. His fingers dug into the delicate skin on her cheek as he forced Cassie to turn her head. She stiffened as he leaned closer to her throat and inhaled deeply. Her heart thundered against her rib cage. Tears, unbidden, sprang to her eyes.

“At last, sugar plum.” His breath whispered over her skin. “You’re mine.”

@Creative Thoughts 2021

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