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Jace Dennison saw the woman staring at him as he took a seat to wait for his flight to Montana. He immediately opened the book he'd picked up to avoid being forced to talk to anyone.
But as he did, the letter from his mother fell out. Jace felt a wave of guilt along with grief as he bent to pick it up. If only he had read it and been able to return to Montana before it was too late.
Unsteadily, he opened the envelope and pulled out the letter. What surprised him was that it wasn't one of her usual cheerful letters that ended with "I hope you can come home" for whatever birthday, holiday or other event.
No, this letter was different. There was an urgency in her words. She must have known she was dying. Jace read the letter again. Over the years, he had managed to make it home for his mother's birthday and a few other occasions though not many, he thought with regret.
What bothered him about this letter was what his mother wasn't saying. Apparently, there was something she needed to tell him, something that had weighed heavily on her for years, making him even more convinced that she'd known she was dying. Why hadn't she let him know before it was too late?
He studied the letter and frowned. His mother almost made it sound as if she had a secret. Jace found that hard to believe. Marie Dennison wasn't the kind of woman who could keep a deep, dark secret, especially not from her only child. Not that cheerful, loving woman who'd raised him after his father had died. She'd already raised her younger brother, Audie.
But what had set off alarms was that his mother had insisted that she needed to tell him in person.
With growing regret, he realized he might never know what that secret was. When he'd landed in Miami, he'd been notified by his superior that there had been another tragedy at home. His uncle Audie Dennison had apparently been killed. The details were sketchy.
All Jace knew was that he was going home to bury the only family he had leftand he hadn't been there when they had needed him the most.
He looked up and was surprised to see it was the same woman who'd been staring at him earlier. She appeared to be close to his own age, early thirties, a petite, slight woman with dark hair cut in a chin-length bob. Her wide brown eyes had a haunted look to them in a face that was painfully beautiful.
"Excuse me," she repeated, her voice soft and apologetic. "I hate to bother you, but you look so much like my late husband. My husband's name was Carris. John Carris."
He smiled sympathetically. "No, I'm sorry. I'm afraid I've never heard the name before."
She nodded, looking disappointed. "I was so sure " Her gaze moved over the contours of his face. "You look so much like him you could be brothers." She quickly took a step back. "My mistake. I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"It was no bother. I'm sorry to hear about your husband." It was clear that her loss had been recent.
"Thank you." She turned and walked away.
He stared after her for a moment, sympathizing with her in a way she would never know. Several people sitting nearby had been watching him and the woman, he realized, but they soon went back to what they had been doing.
Jace glanced again at the letter he'd been reading before she'd approached him then carefully put it into his jacket pocket.
As his flight was called, he rose to join the line of people preparing to boardand hesitated. Ahead of him, the widow Carris showed the attendant her boarding pass, and Jace had the strangest sense of foreboding.
He'd stayed alive this long by trusting his instincts.
"Sir?" the man said behind him when he failed to move forward.
"Sorry," Jace said as he stepped aside to pretend to dig out his boarding pass, knowing he couldn't trust his emotions right now. Not having just recently lost not only his mother, but also his uncle. Not with that letter in his pocket worrying him.
He'd never been afraid of flyingnot even after his recent jungle crash, which had left him badly injured. He'd flown hundreds of times in planes that had looked as if they wouldn't get off the ground, into and out of countries where he wasn't welcome.
What was there to fear flying home to Montana in this 777 on such a beautiful day? Hell, it wasn't even snowing yet, and it was November.
As he watched Mrs. Carris disappear down the tunnel to the plane, the attendant announced final call for the flight to Billings, Montana.
Jace swore and did something he hoped he wouldn't regret. For the first time in years, he didn't listen to his instincts. The last time had been when he'd left the woman he had been about to marry to go to work as an undercover operative for the government.
Taking out his boarding pass, he tried not to limp as he headed for the plane unable to shake his bad feeling. As he caught up with Mrs. Carris, he hoped uncharitably that they wouldn't be sitting near each other.
The last thing he needed was to talk about death for the whole flight. He wondered idly why she was going to Montana.
As he limped down the aisle to his seat, his injured leg bothering him more all of a sudden, he couldn't help being relieved that Mrs. Carris was sitting a half-dozen seats behind him. She hadn't noticed him, busy fastening her seatbelt.
He quickly sat down and opened his book, fighting a sudden urge to flee. Jace knew this had to have something to do with what he would be facing when he got home. His supervisor had told him to stop by the sheriff's department when he reached Whitehorse. That alone had him worried as hell.
The takeoff was smooth, the skies friendly and calm. When the plane landed on the rimrock in Billings, Montana, he breathed a sigh of relief, glad he hadn't listened to his instincts this time. Apparently there had been nothing to his earlier premonition of impending doom.
Still, as he headed for the rental-car line, he was so glad to be on solid ground that he didn't see the woman until she bumped into him.
"Sorry," they said in unison.
Mrs. Carris's laugh surprised him as he reached to pick up the carry-on she'd dropped when they'd collided. She grabbed his jacket sleeve to steady herself as she took her bag from him.
"You can't seem to get away from me," she said with a smile. "I was trying to catch you to thank you for being so understanding earlier at the Denver airport. Another man might have thought I was trying to pick him up." Her cheeks flushed, and he could practically see her bite her tongue.
"It's quite all right, Mrs. Carris."
She looked away, embarrassed, and fiddled with the wedding band she still wore.
"Ava, please. Mrs. Carris only reminds me " Her eyes filled with tears.
"Ava," he said and extended his hand. "Jace. Jace Dennison."
She smiled as she took his hand. Hers was small, cool to the touch and surprisingly strong. "I need to go back that way," she said with a glance over her shoulder. "Thank you again for your understanding. Not all men are so kind."
"Have a nice trip, Mrs. Carris."
"You, too." This time when she walked away, her step seemed a little lighter. He turned to the rental-car counter, silently wishing her well, thinking it was the last he would see of Ava Carris.
It wasn't until later, when he stopped for dinner on the three-hour drive north to Whitehorse, that he reached into his jacket pocket for his mother's letter only to find it gone.
Ava Carris had planned to fly from Billings on to Seattle. At least that's what her ticket said. She'd gone with a cheaper ticket, which meant several stops in Montana before arriving late in Seattle.
It was John's fault. Even though her husband was gone, he was still with her in small ways. Thanks to his life insurance, she could afford to fly first class if she wanted.
But John had taught her to be frugal. Cheap, her sister would have said.
Ava swatted away the thought of her sister. She hadn't heard from Evie before she'd left, which was fine with her.
Now she watched the man who'd introduced himself as Jace Dennison. She couldn't help herself. It was like looking at John. She could pretend that it was her husband renting them a car which they would drive to wherever the young man was headed. She smiled at the thought, that ache for her husband a constant companion.
Ava knew it was silly, but she waited until she saw which model Jace Dennison rented, then rented a silver SUV just like it. She cringed to think what her sister would have said. Just because he looked so much like John
Maybe I'm just curious.
Or don't have anything better to do.
She bristled at the thought, resenting it. She was now a widow. Of course she felt a little lost, she thought as she took the keys for her silver SUV and walked outside.
What does pretending for a little while hurt?
The day was bright, almost blinding, and she had to put her hand against the building for a moment to steady herself. The dizziness had been getting worse lately. That and the headaches.
She leaned there until she felt a little better. No hurry. It wasn't like she didn't know where Jace Dennison was headed.
Once inside the rental car, she took out the letter she'd seen him reading. She was sure it had something to do with why he was in Montana. As she read it for the third time, she wondered as he must have what it was his mother was so desperate to tell him.
How she despised secrets.
Ava rubbed her temples as she studied the return address again. Whitehorse, Montana. She'd have to buy herself a map, she thought as she started the car.
You shouldn't have taken his letter. You had no right.
She smiled bitterly. A woman had every right. John hadn't fooled her. Neither would this man who looked so much like him that it had almost stopped her heart as dead as John's when she'd seen him.
Some men were just too handsome. John Carris had been one of them. Jace Dennison was another.
Men like that you needed to keep an eye on. Who knew what kind of trouble they could get into?
Ava knew, and that was why she was headed for Whitehorse.
As Jace drove into Whitehorse, he was amazed that the small Western town never seemed to change. There were the same businesses along the main drag as there had been when he was a boy.
He'd thought he would get back to see his mother and uncle more, but his work had kept him away. At least that had been his excuse. When he had come home, he'd sneaked into town, usually late at night, and stayed out at the ranch with his mother and uncle, making a point not to see anyone.
Jace didn't fool himself about why he'd done that as he pulled into a parking spot in front of the sheriff's department, turned off the key and sat for a moment. He didn't know why he'd been told to contact the sheriff, but he did know that whatever the reason, it wasn't going to be good.
Could it have something to do with the secret his mother had hinted at in her letter? It still bothered him that he'd lost it.
The trepidation he was feeling surprised him. Fear was no stranger to him. It came with his dangerous job.
But the kind of fear he was feeling now was something new. He didn't want to know what his mother might have kept from him, and the last thing he wanted was to have to bury both his mother and uncle.
Bracing himself, he opened his door and got out. It was one of those clear, incredibly blue, sunny days that Montana was famous for in the fall. A blessing of a day, because it was November. Within hours it could be snowing and cold.
Jace breathed in the smell of autumn and realized he'd forgotten this scent that was as unique as this part of Montana.
At the dispatcher's office, he was told that the sheriff was in her office. He found it down the hall.
"I guess I have been gone a long time," Jace said when he saw McCall Winchester behind the desk wearing a sheriff's uniform. "A woman sheriff in Whitehorse?" Let alone a Winchester. Although he didn't voice that sentiment, McCall picked up on it.
"No one else wanted the job." She smiled as she got to her feet and held out her hand. He and McCall had gone to high school together, though she was a few years behind him.
"We've been looking for you," she said after shaking his hand and offering him a seat. "I'm sorry about your mother's passing and your uncle Audie's."
"I know mother's was cancer, but Audie?" he asked, getting right to the point.
"Quite a bit has been going on," McCall said and hesitated. "Your uncle took his own life."