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Sheriff Jake McCall knew what he was about to do could put a woman in grave danger. Maybe even get her killed. He wasn't certain he could live with that, but he sure as hell couldn't live with the alternative, either.
Risking Maggie Gallagher's life, and his, was the only choice he had.
He pushed the stallion hard, its hooves chopping into the frozen ground. The icy wind whipped at him and burned his eyes and hands. But he rode harder. Away from the ranch house and away from what was waiting for him there.
It didn't help.
Jake had known that when he saddled up, but he couldn't face what was inside. Not yet. Though delaying it didn't change the fact that he'd have to do things he had sworn he'd never do.
Like see Maggie again.
He hated her more than he wanted her. Far more. And he hated himself for still wanting her after what had happened. That settled like a deadweight in Jake's gut, and he figured that particular feeling wasn't going to get better anytime soon.
Cursing, Jake pushed that thought aside and rode the half mile to the creek, not stopping, not slowing until he got to the ice-scabbed water's edge. He reined in the stallion, put his thumb to the brim of his Stetson to ease it back a bit, and he sat there, his forearm on the saddle horn.
He stared out at the glassy black surface of the creek and at the cottonwood trees, all veiny and bare. In the thin white moonlight he glanced down at the silver star badge pinned to his denim shirt pocket and felt a pain of a different kind. The badge meant something to him. Always had. It was his anchor. His cause.
Yeah, that was a sappy cliche that he'd never admit aloud. Not here in rural Texas where the only acceptable feelings for a real man to show were anger, appreciation for good-looking women and love for animals and small children.
But it was true.
People didn't call him Boy Scout for nothing.
The stallion snorted, its breath mixing with the air and creating a milky haze around them. He looked back at Jake with a judgmental dark eye and snorted again.
It was too butt-freezing cold to be out on this December night trying to ride off his troubles. But he'd wanted one last look at the place, just in case he never saw it again.
Jake gathered the reins, maneuvered the stallion around and headed back. No gallop this time. He kept the stallion's gait easy and slow, but each step still took him home.
There were twinkling lights around the windows. A holly wreath on the door. A plastic Santa and his sleigh perched on the roof. It still didn't feel like Christmastime even though it was only three days away.
Jake spotted his brother, Royce, on the porch that ran across the entire front of the ranch house. Royce was on the top step, his lanky jeans-clad legs stretched out in front of him while he took a long drag on a cigarette.
Since Royce had quit smoking some four years ago, it was a reminder to Jake that he wasn't the only one in for a bad night. Royce flicked the cigarette into what was left of their sister's petunia bed. She'd complain about that come spring when she found it.
By then, all of their lives here would have changed.
One way or another.
"Dad's waiting on you." Royce got up from the step, the Christmas lights flickering off the silver deputy's badge he had clipped to his rawhide belt. "You okay?" Royce asked.
"No." Jake figured a lie would just stick in his throat so he didn't even try it.
His brother stopped a moment as if considering that, and then he made a sound that could have meant anything before he strolled inside.
Jake dismounted and led the stallion to the barn. He mumbled an apology for the hard ride while he took off the saddle and gave the horse a quick brush down. He hurried now, dreading the delay more than he dreaded the conversation that was about to take place, and Jake made his way back to the house.
The moment he opened the door, he spotted them in the great room that sprawled out in front of him.
His brother, Royce. His sister, Nell. His father, Chet.
Royce had already taken the chair near the fireplace where a stack of mesquite logs were crackling and spitting. Chet was in his leather recliner that was positioned like a throne, the toes of his black snakeskin boots aimed at the ceiling. Jake spared him a glance before he went to the room across the hall. It'd once been a guest room, but these days it was more of a home-hospital for his daughter.
Sunny Lynn McCall.
She owned every bit of Jake's heart.
Jake didn't go in. He watched from the doorway as the visiting nurse, Betsy Becker, gave his daughter another injection. His little girl barely moved, didn't even open her eyes, despite the needle being jammed into her hip.
That nearly brought Jake to his knees.
Three years old was way too young to be immune to pain. Too young to die. It was up to him now to make sure that didn't happen.
Betsy took off her surgical mask, came out of the room and dodged Jake's gaze. "I'm sorry. I'll be back in the morning." She gave him a pat on the arm.
Betsy didn't linger, didn't speak to the others. She was a fixture now, appearing at the ranch every morning and leaving every night. She grabbed her things and let herself out. Jake had no doubts that come seven in the morning Betsy would be back to shove more needles into his baby.
Sometimes life just plain sucked, but it was easier to take a kick in the teeth when he was on the receiving end of the pain. Watching Sunny suffer like this was a special form of hell that he wouldn't wish on anyone.
Well, maybe there was someone.
He pulled in a long breath, went into the adjoining bathroom so he could scrub up and put on a surgical mask. He wasn't sick, but they couldn't take any chances with Sunny.
When Jake walked to her bed, Sunny didn't wake up and probably wouldn't, because lately she was more tired than not. He leaned down, kissed both cheeks, ran his fingers through her dark hair. He lingered a bit despite hearing Chet impatiently clear his throat.
The room was as cheerful as Jake had been able to make it. The floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree in the corner was decorated with lights and angel ornaments that Sunny had picked out from an online catalog. Her stuffed animals and dolls were nearby. Coloring books, too.
"You gonna make us wait all night?" Chet snarled.
Chet always sounded as if he was picking a fight. Except when he talked to Sunny. Jake's baby girl had wrapped her grandpa around her pinkie and vice versa. And that was the reason that Jake could still love his dad.
Of course, Jake didn't like him much, but that wasn't likely to change.
Jake gave Sunny another kiss, gently squeezed her hand and took off his mask so he could face his family.
"I'll stay with Sunny while you talk," Nell whispered. His sister didn't know what was up, but Jake knew she would always step in to take care of her niece.
He was counting heavily on that.
"Well?" Chet, again. Another snarl. "Did you find her?'"
Jake waited until Nell had closed the door to Sunny's room before he answered Chet's questions. "I found her. More or less."
Royce knew where this was going, and that was no doubt why he cursed and probably wished he had another smoke or two. "She's in the Witness Security Program."
"She's where?" Chet snapped.
"WITSEC, witness security," Jake supplied, though Chet had no doubt heard him the first time. The man was sixty-four, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing. Or his mind. "She was placed in the program after, well, just after," Jake settled for saying.
Chet cursed. "The marshals won't tell you where she is." It wasn't a question, and it was followed by more cursing.
Royce took up the explanation since he'd been at the sheriff's office when Jake had gotten the news. "We sent a request all the way up to the head of WITSEC, but our request was denied."
Chet got to his feet and started to pace. "If I could get my hands around her neck"
"She probably doesn't know Sunny's sick," Jake interrupted. "And we don't know if it'll be worth it to even find her."
That was the hardest part of all. This could all be for nothing.
"I don't know how much the Justice Department is telling her because" Jake had to pause and breathe "it could be dangerous if anyone found out her new identity and her location."
"Damn right it's dangerous," Chet snapped. "It's dangerous for Sunny, too. And if she can help, then I don't care about compromising her identity. Hell, I don't care if somebody guns her down like"
Thankfully, Chet had the good sense to stop. Jake already had enough bad things to deal with tonight without the memories of his late wife's murder. Of course, the memories of Anna were there.
Even though she'd been dead and buried for over two and a half years now, since Sunny was just a baby.
"Are we just going to keep calling her she and her?" Royce asked. He huffed, but Jake didn't know if he was just riled about the situation or the pronoun use. "Because she's got a name, you know?"
"Yeah, and it's a name not welcome here," Chet insisted.
His father wasn't the forgive-and-forget sort.
Neither was Jake in this situation.
But Sunny needed her. And that meant Jake needed her, too.
"Maggie Gallagher," Jake said aloud. It was the first time that name had crossed his lips in two years, eight months and five days.
Maggie, his former sister-in-law. Or would that be his late wife's sister? Or how about the woman who'd gotten Anna killed? Yeah, that was the label that fit her best.
Maybe Chet had the right idea about not saying her name.
Chet stopped pacing and snapped toward Jake. "How you gonna convince those marshals to give us her location?"
The million-dollar question. Jake had a fifty-cent answer.
Jake shook his head. "I can't convince them. Royce and I have already tried."
"We have," Royce agreed. He glanced at Chet. "The Justice Department can't tell us where she is because during her relocation processing, Maggie specifically said she didn't want contact with any of us."
Chet cursed again.
If Jake had been feeling charitablehe wasn'the would have pointed out that Chet had warned Maggie that if she ever came back to Mustang Ridge, he'd kill her and the horse she rode in on. Hardly a welcome-mat greeting. And it was that threat that had no doubt caused Maggie to include the no-contact order.
Chet lifted his hands, palms up. "So, that's it? You're just gonna give up?"
It took Jake a moment to rein in his voice. "I'll never give up."
Chet shook his head, riffled his hand through his hair. "Then never giving up better come with some kind of plan attached."
"I have a plan," Jake managed to say. It wasn't a good one, though, and it would hurt.
Oh, yeah. It'd hurt bad.
"Best if I don't give you any details of what I have to do." Jake unpinned his badge and dropped it on the table.
It hardly made it sound when it hit the soft pinewood.
Funny, he figured it would. Because the sound sure went through him. That badge was fourteen years of his life and had been pinned to his pockets since he was twenty-one.
"For safekeeping," Jake explained, knowing as explanations went, that it wasn't a very good one.
Or an honest one.
Chet glared at the badge, then at Jake. "We're family. We got a right to know what you're doing."
Jake pulled in a weary breath, shook his head and started for the door.
Chet called out for him to stop, but Jake just kept going. There was no way he could tell his family that come tomorrow, all hell was going to break loose.
And that he, Sheriff Jake McCall, was about to become an outlaw.