March: ANGEL'S REST
Eagle’s Way Estate Outside of Eternity Springs, Colorado
Holding a 9 mm Glock in one hand and a tumbler of single-malt scotch in the other, John Gabriel Callahan stared out the mountain home’s wall of windows and knew it was time to take a hike. An hour ago he’d watched a gray cloud bank roll in and swallow the rocky peaks above. The rain had turned to snow twenty minutes later. Now a thin layer of white dusted the branches of the trees that surrounded him in every direction. Evergreens and aspen—yellow, gold, and orange with autumn. It was a breathtaking view. A lonely beauty.
It was perfect place to . . . hike.
He set down his glass without sampling the whiskey, then shifted the automatic from his left hand to his right. He held it balanced on his palm, testing the weight, absorbing its warmth. How long had it been since he’d held a gun? Long enough for it to feel foreign. Not nearly long enough to forget.
Heaven knows he needed to forget.
A bitter smile hovered on his lips. He stuck the Glock into his jeans at the small of his back, and ignoring the jackets hanging on the coat rack, exited the house.
He paused long enough to lock the door behind him and secure the key in the lock box like a good guest should. Then he paused on the wide wooden deck, surveyed the area, and debated which way to go. Up into the mountains behind him? Along the shallow creek that bisected the high, narrow valley? Across the creek to the tree-covered slopes rising before him? It didn’t much matter. Wilderness stretched in every direction. The memories traveled with him everywhere.
He chose to climb the mountain behind him, where the path appeared a little rockier, the forest a bit more dense. The more rigorous the path, the better.
He hiked a long time, his thoughts bouncing between events of his life. His lives. That’s how he thought of it. He’d had his life in Texas, then the dark months overseas and his struggle for survival, and finally the new life when he’d started over. The third time, he’d gotten it right. The third time’s the charm.
A bitter wind whipped around him, and he grew as numb on the outside as he’d been on the inside for the better part of a year now. Weariness weighted his legs and his soul.
The snowfall intensified, visibility decreased. As the ground disappeared beneath a blanket of white, he idly wondered if this snow would last until spring. It was early in the season for snow, so he doubted it. Although, at this high altitude, with this low temperature, who knew? Bet it wasn’t more than fifteen degrees. A man could freeze to death.
But that way was too easy.
He turned into the wind, and in the echo of wind and memory he thought he heard a sound. Listening hard, he heard it again and his gut clenched. It sounded like . . . laughter. The sweet, familiar notes of laughter. A woman’s. A child’s. Happy.
Haunted, Gabe closed his eyes and shuddered.
No laughter, just ghosts.
Over. It’s over. I’m done. He broke into a jog, chasing the imaginary sound or running from it, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. He moved deeper into the forest, uphill and down, paying scant attention to his path until trees gave way to rolling meadow. It was a beautiful, peaceful place.
Their suburban home in Virginia had been a beautiful, peaceful place. A sanctuary.
The imagined echoes of laughter swelled and strengthened into a whirlwind of memory, sweet and pure, and Gabe listened and yearned until the sound transformed and all he heard were screams. He was so very tired of the screams.
In a Rocky Mountain meadow, Gabe Callahan tripped and fell flat on his face. He lay in the biting cold and snow, breathing as if he’d run a marathon, sweat—or maybe tears—running down his face. He wanted to die. Dear God, he wanted to die. Here. Today. Now. Right now.
Today would have been Matthew’s sixth birthday.
Enough. He climbed to a kneeling position and reached for the Glock. This time the weapon felt natural in his grip. He flicked off the safety and chambered a round. Shutting his eyes, he took one last deep breath. A sense of peace surrounded him like the snowfall, and he was ready.
The force hit him without warning, a hard body blow to the back that knocked him forward and sent the Glock sailing from his grip. Weight settled atop him. Gabe’s thoughts flew like bullets. Not a man. Fur. An animal. Sharp claws dug into his back. Mountain lion? Would fangs sink into his neck?
Instinct kicked in, and in a strange twist of fate, Gabe prepared to fight for his life. He rolled and the animal rolled with him and let out a sound. Gabe froze. This wasn’t a mountain cat.
Arf, arf, arf. It pounced again, its forelegs landing on Gabe’s chest, and a long wet tongue rolling out to lick his face.
Gabe’s breath fogged on the air as he let out a heavy sigh, pushed the dog off his chest, and sat up. It was a goofy, too-friendly, starved-to-skin-and-bones boxer with floppy ears and a crooked tail. Gabe turned his face as the tongue came back and bathed him face in slobber once again.
Then, for the first time in months, John Gabriel Callahan smiled.
“You’re an angel, Dr. Nic,” said the fifth-grader, her arms full of a shaggy-haired, mixed-breed puppy and her eyes swimming with tears. “I love you. I’m so glad you moved home to Eternity Springs. I knew you’d be able to fix Mamey, and that we wouldn’t have to put him down like Daddy said.”
Nicole Sullivan stood at the doorway of her veterinary clinic and waved at the girl’s mother, Lisa Myers, who waited in the ten-year-old sedan on the street, her eight-month-old son strapped into a car seat in the back. “I’m glad I could help, Beth. And I’ll enjoy your mom’s canned peaches all winter long.”
The smile remained on her face until the car drove off and she sighed and murmured, “Too bad I can’t pay the electric bill in peaches.”
Or baked goods. Or venison. She had managed to barter a case of elderberry wine for a radiator hose replacement on her truck.
“Mom says you have to stop giving away your services,” said Lori Reese, Nic’s volunteer assistant and seventeen-year-old goddaughter.
“Like your mother doesn’t let Marilyn Terrell pay for a portion of her groceries with free video rentals,” Nic fired back. “Rentals she seldom uses.”
Lori shrugged. “My mom is queen of ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ ”
“That’s true.” It was also true that Nic had a severe cash-flow problem. In the five years since her divorce, she’d worked hard to pay down the debt her sleazy, tax-evading ex had dumped in her lap, but she still had a long way to go. Those bills on top of her school loans and a practice whose invoices were paid in foodstuffs as often as currency made meeting monthly expenses a challenge.
“Let’s swab the decks around here, Lori, and call it a day,” Nic said, checking her watch. “I have an appointment at the bank, and with any luck, I’ll be through in time to catch a bite of supper at the Bristlecone Café before it closes.” She still had two free specials coming in payment for suturing the cut on Billy Hawkins’ chin after his skateboard accident.
As the closest thing this county of 827 permanent residents had to a medical doctor since Doc Ellis died in August, Nic stitched up almost as many two-legged creatures as four-legged ones these days. While she was glad to help with minor injuries, Eternity was desperate for a doctor.
“Mrs. Hawkins is closing for supper?” Lori pursed her lips in surprise as she grabbed the bottle of disinfectant from the supply closet. “Wow. She never does that. I knew this meeting tonight was a big deal, but . . . wow.”
“It’s an important announcement. Eternity Springs needs a miracle.”
Lori wrinkled her nose and squirted lemon-scented spray on the exam table. “I don’t think building a prison in town qualifies as a miracle.”
“I can’t honestly say I’m thrilled at the prospect myself, but it would bring jobs to town and boost our permanent population. The town needs that if we’re going to survive.”
“Tell me about it.” Lori tore a handful of paper towels from a roll and went to work. “Even if they’re not going on to college, everyone leaves town after high school graduation because the only work here is summer work. Mom says it wasn’t like that when you were my age. I want to go away to college and vet school, but I also want to be able to come back home to live after I graduate. I love Eternity Springs.”
“I hear you.” Nic had fallen in love with the tiny mountain town when she and her mom moved here to be close to Mom’s sister and her husband. Nic’s jerk of a father—her mom’s married lover—had finally cut all ties with his mistress and their daughter. Nic had been nine years old and devastated, and the place and its people had given her a hug and a home. Years later when her marriage fell apart, she could have gone anywhere to rebuild, but this mountain valley had called to her soul. She’d spent a year at a clinic in Alamosa to reacquaint herself with large-animal veterinary medicine, and then finally she’d come home. She’d renovated her late uncle’s dental office into a vet clinic and scraped by.
Nic loved Eternity just as it was, but she recognized that her hometown wouldn’t thrive and perhaps not even survive if the local leaders didn’t succeed in bringing in some sort of new industry. New jobs meant new residents, which would be good for everyone. A new prison would definitely bring that doctor they needed so desperately to town. If Mayor Hank Townsend relayed a thumbs-up on the prison tonight, she could at least look forward to having that particular burden shifted off her shoulders.
“I don’t want to live anywhere else, Lori,” she told her young assistant. “If building a prison in the valley means we get to stay here, then I’ll help clear the land for it myself.”
Lori sighed dramatically, reminding Nic of the teenager’s mother at the same age. Those two were so much alike it was scary.
“You’re right. I see that.” Lori’s expression clouded with worry as she met Nic’s gaze. “But I love Eternity Springs as it is. What if we do get the prison and it changes us?”
Nic’s stomach gave a little twist at the thought, but experience had taught her how to answer Lori’s question. “Change happens whether we like it or not. The trick is to accept it, to make it work for us as best we can. Who knows? Maybe it’ll bring that man your mom’s been waiting for to town.”
Lori rolled her eyes. “Great. I’ve always wanted a criminal for a stepdad.”
“I was thinking more of a tall, dark, and handsome contractor.” She waggled her brows and added, “Who wears a tool belt. Sarah has always had a thing for tool belts.”
“Dr. Nic, puh-lease! That’s my mom you’re talking about. Besides, we already have a handful of contractors in town. I can’t say I’m impressed.”
Nic laughed and carried the trash bag outside, where sometime in the ten minutes since young Beth had left with her Mamey a light snowfall had begun. Years of experience told Nic the flurries wouldn’t stick, but this did represent the first snowfall of the season. Winter was bearing down upon Eternity, and Nic recognized the fact with dismay.
Once upon a time, winter had been her favorite season. Cold weather invigorated her. She loved the holidays, winter sports, and cozy nights snuggling in front of a fire with the man she loved. But a series of really awful winters had all but ruined the season for her. First she’d found her husband in bed with another woman two weeks before Christmas. Then a stroke took her beloved uncle David the following November. The next winter, the financial fallout from an ugly, prolonged divorce took its toll, and Nic was forced her to sell her share of her Colorado Springs vet practice. Then, on New Year’s Eve of her first winter back in Eternity Springs, her mom and her aunt had dropped the bombshell that they’d bought a condo in Florida and moving day was two weeks away. Now Nic couldn’t feel the sting of a snowflake on her cheek without mourning all that she’d lost.
And wondering what losses the coming winter would bring.
Attempting to ward off the melancholy that threatened, she gave her head a shake and hauled the trash bag outside to the waste cans, which she then rolled out to the street for tomorrow morning’s pickup. When she was halfway back to the clinic, an unfamiliar red Jeep Wrangler skidded to a stop at the curb. Nic’s steps slowed as a bedraggled stranger climbed out of the vehicle. He was tall, broad, and trim with dark hair overdue for a cut and a square jaw that needed a shave even worse. He reached into the backseat to reappear with an armful of struggling dog—a skinny brindle boxer whose left hind leg appeared to be bleeding badly.
Nic picked up her step. “Lori? Emergency patient coming.” To the man, she called, “Bring him here.”
The stranger followed Nic into the clinic. Lori took one look and then set about preparing the supply tray Nic would need. The stranger placed the boxer on the exam table Nic indicated and held him in place.
“What happened?” she asked.
Concern shadowed his whiskey-brown eyes. “A damned leghold trap.”
“He’s your dog?”
He shook his head. “No. He’s probably a stray. Our paths crossed a few days ago while I was hiking the backcountry, but he didn’t hang around or follow me home. When I was hiking on Murphy Mountain today I heard something howling in pain, so I tracked the sound and found him caught in the trap.”
“You poor baby,” she murmured to the dog.
“We tussled a bit when I tried to free him. I’m afraid I made his injuries worse.”
Nic sedated the suffering animal and made a cursory examination. Lacerations, trauma where he’d chewed himself. Broken teeth. She studied the bone. “Not fractured, believe it or not. Significant muscle damage, but I think we can save the leg.”
With that pronouncement, Nic focused on her patient and went to work.
Gabe breathed a little easier when he saw the competent, methodical manner in which the vet acted. Dr. Nicole Sullivan of Eternity Springs Veterinary Clinic—according to the sign beside the door—obviously knew what she was doing. He could leave with a clear conscience.
Instead, Gabe stayed right where he was, watching the woman work.
One minute stretched to five, then to ten. She had good hands—long, narrow fingers that moved with a surety of purpose. Straight white teeth tugged at a full lower lip when she tied off sutures. He judged her to be younger than he was, but not by a lot. Early thirties, he’d guess. She was petite but shapely, fair-skinned with a dusting of freckles across her nose. She wore her blond hair long and pulled back in a ponytail; plain gold studs were in her ears. He saw no rings on her fingers beneath the latex gloves.
She spoke in a quiet, confident voice as she explained her actions to the teenager. A teacher with her apprentice, he thought. She was good at it, too. Gentle and warm, her tone soothing and compassionate. A healer.
Gabe didn’t belong here. He should leave.
Only he didn’t want to leave.
“So where did you come from, boy?” the vet asked the unconscious dog as she frowned over something on his belly. “He’s little more than a puppy. Judging by his body weight and the state of his coat, he’s probably been out in the wild for a while.”
“Think he could have been abandoned at birth?” the teenager asked. “No collar on him, and I’ve never seen a boxer his age who still has his tail. This one is crooked, too. If he had an owner, you’d think they’d have docked his tail.”
“It’s a cute tail,” the vet declared. “Gives him character.”
Gabe tugged a worn leather dog collar from his back pocket. “Here. I have his collar. It came loose while I was trying to free him from the trap.”
He handed the collar to the teenager, who checked its heart-shaped metal tag. “Rabies vaccine is current from a clinic in Oklahoma. Bet he belonged to summer tourists and got lost from his family.”
“I don’t recall any lost dog notices for a boxer,” the vet said. “We’ll make some calls. He could have traveled a long way.” She glanced up at Gabe. “Where did you find him?”
Surprise lit the vet’s pretty blue eyes. “That’s private property.”
“Not private enough, apparently. The owner didn’t set that trap.”
The teenager’s head jerked around. “How do you know? Are you a Davenport?”
From the Paperback edition.