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He was too late.
The thought hammered through Dylan Garrett's head as he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal. The Jeep Wrangler sucked gas and roared down the dark stretch of Interstate 10, gobbling up pavement the way his prized black Lab, Dallas, ate up a convict's scent.
He couldn't be too late. He wouldn't be.
Dylan had spent the past ten years since he'd met Julie Matthews Cooper being too late. Time had beat him at every turn. He'd been too late to make an impression before his best friend won her heart. Too late to declare his feelings and beg her not to marry his friend. Too late to save her when that friend had turned from her husband into her enemy. Too late to help her through a difficult pregnancy spent alone and on the run.
The highway markers blurred past him as he drove faster, leaving the bright lights of San Antonio and heading north toward Boot Hill. His heart pounded as he descended the exit ramp and headed through the quiet Texas town. Quiet, as in calm, undisturbed, safe.
That's why he'd picked it as an ideal hiding place for Julie Cooper. His old college buddy. His dearest friend. The love of his life.
If only she knew.
The Jeep roared louder as he checked his mirrors before zooming through a red light. He'd been standing up as best man at Max and Rachel Santana's wedding when he'd received Julie's frantic call. Rushing off before the ceremony had barely begun, Dylan had foregone any timely apologies. If anyone would understand his quick disappearance, it was Max and Rachel. Their road to happiness had been rocky at best, after Max learned that Rachel had given up her baby daughter for adoption. Now that the three of them were reunited, their future looked bright indeed.
Things were different for Dylan and Julie. There would be no happily ever after. No two-story house with a sprawling oak tree out front. No wraparound porch littered with toys and kids.
Forget day-to-day living with its ups and downs. Tears and laughter. Joys and sorrow. The future centered around survival, which was why Dylan had hauled ass out of the reception, much to his family's dismay.
But Boot Hill was a long drive from Trueblood, Texas, and Dylan prayed he would make it in time.
By late afternoon he swerved into the small apartment complex just off Main Street. Another turn around one of the corner buildings and he caught sight of her second-story apartment. Fear slithered around his spine and squeezed tight as his gaze snagged on the large front window.
The drapes sat open, revealing the living room where he'd sat on the sofa as often as he could during the past few months and shared Julie's favorite pineapple-and-jalapeno pizza.
There'd be no Victorian lamp burning on the end table. No vanilla-scented potpourri candle casting lively shadows against the peach-colored walls. No television set blasting the latest San Antonio Spurs game. Tonight they would be on the run.
The whole building seemed deserted. Empty.
His gut twisted at the thought, the feeling all too familiar after years of undercover work with the Dallas Police Department. He'd traded police work for private investigation a couple of years back, but his instincts hadn t faded. In fact, they d sharpened and become even more reliable. It was a characteristic that made him good at his job. The best when it came to reading people and situations.
His skin prickled and his stomach churned as he shoved the Jeep into park, killed the engine and jumped out. He hit the stairs two at a time, panic pushing him faster.
He thought of the small child Julie had given birth to only eight short months agolittle Thomas with his silky black hair and chubby cheeksand his heart pounded even faster.
They had to be okay. They had to.
Cold metal met warm flesh as his fingers closed around the doorknob. He paused, his heart pounding, fear gripping every nerve.
''Please.'' He whispered the same prayer he d prayed time and time again during the year he d spent searching for Julie after her sudden disappearance. When the leads became too few and the future looked grim. When he d been so close to giving up and admitting the worst to himself.
But he hadn't. He'd ignored his fear and finally he d found her.
Now he might have lost her again.
''No, he growled as he tried the door.
The knob turned, but the door wouldn t budge. Several things registered in that next charged instant. The dead bolt was in place, which meant the door was locked from the inside.
Before he could stop to think what he was doing, Dylan pulled his fist back then smashed it into the window.
He'd given her up once without a fight and it wasn t going to happen again. Julie Cooper was his responsibility, his life, his heart, even if she didn t know it.
Till death do us part.
That s how long his love would last for Julie. If only he didn t have the sick, gut-wrenching feeling that that moment had finally come.
She was dead.
Julie fought for a frantic breath and tried to control the hammering of her heart. She refused to accept the truth.
Hattie Devereaux, her friend and confidante and the sweetest, most stubborn woman to ever maneuver a pirogue down the bayou, was really dead.
''No,'' she whispered. Hattie had always been there for Julie, telling her everything would be all right. She d been there when Julie was alone and pregnant and in desperate need of a friend. When she was in the midst of excruciating labor pains. When she held her son in her arms for the very first time, frantically counting all his fingers and toes.
Hattie had always been there when Julie needed her. She d offered advice and support and guidance and protection. Yes, Hattie had protected her on more than one occasion, and she d gone to her grave doing just that.
Julie closed her eyes and in her mind heard the phone ring once again. She d just put Thomas to bed for his afternoon nap and settled herself on the couch with a stack of magazines and the Saturday paper. She d answered the phone, first snatching up Thomas, who'd been awakened by the noise and had started to cry.
Hattie s voice had carried over Thomas s tired wail. The old woman s words had been barely discernable, so soft and pained and desperate.
"He found me," Hattie whispered. "They want the locket, Julie the locket."
"The locket? But why?" Julie cried.
Hattie didn't seem to be listening. Instead, her breaths came quicker and shorter.
"Hattie, please. Hold on. I'll call 911. I'll"
There was only silence.
A year and a half of running and hiding and praying, and Julie was no better off than the day she d learned her husband was working with the mob. She knew Sebastian was hunting her. He wanted to silence her. Once and for all.
But it had been her beloved friend Hattie who d been silenced. Dear sweet Hattie who d never had a negative word to say about anybody except old Mr. Peabody, who ran the bait shop on the bayou where she lived. He d had a pack of dogs that yapped all night and disturbed Hattie s handful of expectant and recovering mothers, and she d delighted in shaking her broom at him and calling him every colorful name she could think of. Yet at the same time, she'd been the first one to take the old coot a pot full of chicken noodle soup when he d been stricken with the flu.
She d had a good heart. That s why Julie had featured the old woman in her ''Meet the People'' column for the San Antonio Express-News. The column had explored the cultural diversity of the city, and when Hattie had come to San Antonio for a brief period to help train midwives in the Mexican community, Julie had done a full story on her. She d not only written a great piece, but made a great friend in the process.
Now she sat here, hours after receiving Hat-tie s warning call, still not believing her friend was gone.
''No!'' The frantic plea broke from Julie's lips just as glass shattered and an arm reached inside the apartment. A large hand twisted the dead bolt and the door slammed open.
''Get the hell away from her .'' Dylan's words faded as he caught sight of her sitting on the floor. Thomas in her arms.
His gaze swept her from head to toe before making a frantic visual search of the surrounding room.
''II'm alone,'' she managed to say, swallowing against the lump in her throat. Her chest hurt and her head ached and her entire body felt as if someone had used her for a punching bag. She forced herself to take another breath and concentrated on banishing the black dots dancing before her eyes.
As if he didn t believe her, he glanced around the room again.
Julie met Dylan's gaze. ''She's dead.'' With the words came a spill of fresh tears that temporarily blinded her.
She blinked frantically and wiped at her face, but the effort proved useless. The tears kept coming. Hattie was gone and Julie had no doubt that she herself would soon follow. If Sebastian had managed to find the old woman in the heart of the Louisiana bayou, miles away from civilization, tracing Julie s whereabouts wouldn t be much more difficult.
Especially since Hattie had Julie s cell phone number in her old flower print address book. It wouldn t take long to trace hernot for a man like Sebastian, who had connections.
Her skin prickled and her heart pounded, her breath whooshing from her lungs as quickly as she could draw it in.
Not that Julie feared for herself. She worried over Thomas and what would become of him should something happen to her.
Blood meant nothing to Sebastian. He knew he had a son by now, but all that mattered to him was money and power, and anyone who stood in the way of either, including his infant, would be eliminated if need be.
Julie told herself that, but she hadn t really believed it until now. Until she'd listened to Hattie draw her last breath at the hands of Sebastian s men.
A sob pushed past her lips a heartbeat before she felt him. Muscular arms reached for her and pulled her close and she found herself enveloped in the strong, secure warmth that was Dylan Garrett.
It was an embrace she d felt many times over the past ten years. Back at Texas A & M when she d been particularly frustrated over a poor test score. In the first year of her marriage when she d been lonely because Sebastian had been working long hours and spending less and less time with her. In the past few months when she d been particularly frightened because the man she married, the man she d thought she d loved, had become her pursuer.
Sebastian. A criminal. A murderer.
She shivered and Dylan's arms tightened. For the next few moments, the cold gripping her eased and the future didn t look quite as grim.
That s the way it always was with Dylan. He made her feel safe and protected and loved. Not loved as in till death do us part. He loved her like a friend, just as Hattie loved her.
The way Hattie had loved her, but the old woman was gone now. Dead.
Because of Julie.