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He wasn't a superstitious man.
He wasn't a man who believed in very much of anything, actually. But there were times when Sheriff Garrett Tanner felt as if fate, or the powers that be, or whatever it was that gave order to the universe, had it in for him.
This feeling involved more than just his childhood, which for all intents and purposes had come to an abrupt, jarring end when he was five. That was when his father, a loving, gentle giant of a man, died suddenly. His mother, Mary, an exceedingly timid woman unable to exist without a husband, remarried less than six months later. Her second choice, made from desperation rather than anything her heart dictated, was a tough-as-nails ex-marine.
Garrett's stepfather, Wendell Warner, never missed an opportunity to belittle him and bully him. It was a harsh childhood, but some kids had worse ones. Garrett had survived his, and ultimately, it had made him strong. Unlike some, faced with demoralizing factors in their lives, he didn't become a homeless drifter or a serial killer, both of which, statistics were quick to point out, half the abused children grew up to become.
He'd outlived his tormentorhis stepfather had died in a drunken bar fight on the receiving end of the jagged edge of a broken bottleand Garrett had gone on to become the sheriff of the very town his late stepfather had had nothing but contempt for.
As it turned out, his mother had exactly six months of freedom before she slipped on a patch of ice and hit her head on the curb. She died twelve days later without ever regaining consciousness. Garrett had her buried in the plot beside his father. It was his way of denying that his stepfather had ever existed.
With his parents gone, he'd wanted to do nothing more than go about his job and live out his days in the small town of Booth, Texas, southwest of Houston. He'd figured that things like having a wife and family were beyond the realm of emotionally damaged people like him, and he was fine with that. Being alone really didn't bother him. He'd been alone even when his mother and stepfather were alive and he had lived with them.
The only person he had ever been close to during those years was his half sister, Ellen. Infused with his own father's ethics, Garrett had looked after her while she was growing up, and had kept her, as much as he could, out of his stepfather's way.
The situation grew more and more tense, and he'd believed that one day they would come to a head over Ellen. But then she'd abruptly quit high schoolto marry a marine who'd been created in the image and likeness of her dad. Everything about Private First Class Steve Duffy reeked of the abusive ways of her fatherright down, Garrett suspected, to verbally controlling her and making her feel worthless.
Just before Ellen had run off, Garrett had come as close to begging as he ever had in his life. He had asked her not to marry Duffy, but she did anyway. The morning after he'd tried to appeal to her better judgment, she was gone. Shortly thereafter, she'd called to tell their mother that she was now Mrs. Steve Duffy.
Garrett had lost track of Ellen after that. Seven whole years went by without a word from her. And then, a month ago, he'd gotten a letter. It began with her apology for allowing so much time to pass without contacting him. He suspected even more would have gone by if it hadn't been for the fact that her husband had "died serving his country."
Garrett was more inclined to think that the quicktempered marine had probably died in some sort of one-on-one confrontation with the relative of another woman he was attempting to hurt and brutalize.
Whatever the cause of his brother-in-law's demise, Garrett privately thought it was a reason to rejoice more than mourn. His sister was finally free to reclaim her life, and still young enough to enjoy it and make something of herself.
When he'd read that she was thinking of coming "back home," he'd been surprised. But once he entertained that notion, he had to admit that he was very pleased. His sister was, after all, the only person he had ever opened up to. The only person he had really cared about.
Hard though it was to own up to, he'd lost any feelings for his mother a long time ago, around the time she'd first allowed his stepfather to take a strap to him and whip him.
Anticipating Ellen's arrival, Garrett had started getting things ready for her. He'd told her that she was welcome to stay with him for as long as she wanted. And he was completely unprepared for the phone call that came as he sat in his office this morning.
Rather than his sister, he found himself talking to a social worker named Beth Honeycutt. As he listened, a feeling of foreboding came over him. The disembodied voice told him that there had been an accident. The bus Ellen had been on had been involved in a head-on collision with a cross-country Mack truck.
The room around Garrett grew very dark, despite the fact that it was ten in the morning and the sun had until moments ago filled the small sheriff's office.
He clutched the receiver in his hand, feeling the life drain out of him. He heard a distant voice asking if there'd been any survivors. Belatedly, he realized that the voice belonged to him.
"Just one," the solemn woman on the other end of the line told him. "Your niece survived, Sheriff Tanner."
The numbness inside him splintered a hairbreadth, just enough to allow a measure of confusion to push its way in. Ellen hadn't said anything about having a daughter.
Maybe there'd been some mistake. Maybe this was someone else's sister and the woman had gotten phone numbers mixed up.
"What niece?" he asked in a raspy tone.
"Yours," the social worker told him. "Ellen Duffy's little girl. She's six years old and her name is Ellie."
Garrett's voice, already low, became even lower as he growled, "There has to be some mistake. My sister didn't have any children."
"She had this one," Beth insisted. "Your niece was discovered unconscious in the wreckage. Apparently her body had been shielded by her mom. It looked as if Mrs. Duffy threw herself over the girl at the last minute. Most likely, she died saving her daughter."
The woman who had thrown his entire world into chaos with just a few simple sentences paused to take a breath, then continued. "Ellie was taken to the hospital. The doctors found that she sustained some cuts and bruises, but nothing serious. She was released within a few hours. When can you come by to pick her up?"
Garrett felt like a man trapped in a nightmare. What the woman on the other end of the line was asking wasn't registering in his brain. "How's that again?" he murmured.
"When can you come by to pick up your niece?" Beth Honeycutt repeated. She sounded sympathetic, but removed.
He said the first thing that occurred to him. "I don't know."
Garrett struggled to deal with the huge curve he had been thrown. For the most part, when he wasn't patrolling Booth, he led a very solitary life. He didn't mingle, didn't join in any of the festivities that were periodically held in townnot in summer and especially not around the holidays, which were swiftly approaching.
There was no place for a child in his life. He'd had a dog once, a mongrel named Blue, but that had been more a case of the animal adopting him than the other way around. Moreover, it had taken a long time before he'd accepted the dog into his life. Blue's passing had left Garrett more emotionally isolated than before.
A child? No, he had no place for one, no ability to take care of one. There had to be some other option, some alternate course.
"Look," he said, still reeling from the news of Ellen's death, "can't you find some place for her?"
The social worker sounded neither surprised nor annoyed. Apparently, she'd heard requests like this before. "You are your sister's only living relative. If you don't accept responsibility for your niece, there's no alternative but to put her into the system. What that means"
"I know what that means," he said, cutting the woman off. It meant a string of foster homes and a nomadic life at best. At worst..
At worst she could wind up in a home like the one he'd grown up in.
In all good conscience, he couldn't do that to Ellen's child.
"So you'll come to pick her up?" Ms. Honeycutt asked, taking his interruption to mean he'd changed his mind.
Pick her up. As if he was swinging by a restaurant to pick up an order of takeout. Garrett frowned.
Pulling out a sheet of paper, he picked up a pen and asked, "Where is it, exactly, that you're located?"
The woman rattled off an address in the center of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The accident, she went on to tell him, had taken place just outside the city limits.
Ellen hadn't even made it back to Texas, much less to Booth, Garrett thought, feeling an uncustomary pang.
Damn it, Ellen, you should have listened to me. You shouldn't have married that creep in the first place. Then you 'd still be alive.
But she had married Duffy, and now she was gone.
And Garrett had a niece.
What the hell was he going to do with a little girl? he wondered. He didn't even have anywhere to put herunless he fixed up his couch. He supposed that would have to do until he figured out his next move.
After muttering a few final words to the social worker, Garrett hung up the phone. Tossing the receiver back into its cradle would have been a more accurate description.
Damn it all to hell, anyway.
"Something wrong, Sheriff?"
The question came from the second reason he thought that fateor whateverhad it in for him.
Slowly, Garrett turned in his swivel chair to face the other occupant in the small office, a space that had until recently been his private domain.
Six months ago the town councilsix of the wealthiest men in Boothhad whimsically decided that keeping the peace in the extremely slow growing Texas town required more than just one person. Telling Garrett that they didn't want him to wear himself out, they had gone on to insist he needed a deputy, someone he could share the load with.
Or the boredom, he'd thought at the time.
Then, because he turned down each and every potential candidate who came in to interview for the newly created position, the town council arbitrarily took it upon themselves to do the interviewingand hiring.
Garrett knew he was doomed then.
And he'd been right. To a man, the six-member committee had voted to hire a law enforcement agent who had just moved here from San Diegoa former homicide detective named Lani Chisholm. A woman he now considered a perpetual thorn in his side. A woman who, much to his annoyance, seemed intent on bringing sunshine to every dim corner of their mutual existence.
He'd given up hoping that she would find life here too uneventful and dull, and would move back to San Diego.
Instead, she appeared to have the staying power of an application of Superglue.
Her bright, cheerful smile, evident even in the early hours of the morning, got on his nerves. As did her voice. It was much too sultry for a deputy.
He raised his eyes, shifting them in her direction, and glared at her. As Davy Crockett had been reputed to do, he'd decided to stare down what he considered to be his adversary.