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Marshal Declan O'Malley eased the saddle off his chestnut stallion. He tried not to make any sudden moves, and he didn't look over his shoulder, though Declan was pretty sure someone was watching him.
That "pretty sure" became a certainty when he spotted the footprints on the partially frozen ground.
What the heck was going on?
Since he'd been a federal marshal for nearly six years, he was accustomed to having people want to do him bodily harm, but threats like that rarely came right to his doorstep.
Or rather to his barn.
Declan put the saddle on the side of the watering trough and adjusted his buckskin jacket so he could reach the Colt in his belt holster. He gave the chestnut's rump a gentle slap, and as Declan had hoped he'd do, the stallion headed for some hay in the side corral. If there was going to be a shootout, Declan sure didn't want his horse caught up in the gunfire.
He stepped to the side of the barn door. And waited.
But the only thing he could hear was the bitter December wind rattling the bare trees scattered around the grounds. He didn't mind the cold when he was on his daily ride, but he minded it a lot when he was waiting for something bad to happen. Or maybe not bad.
He looked at the footprints again. Small. Like a woman's. He hadn't been in a relationship in the past three or four months, but maybe this was an old girlfriend come to visit. Still, it didn't feel like something that simple.
Or that fun.
His house wasn't exactly on the beaten path, not even by rural-Texas standards. He was literally on the back forty acres of his foster family's horse-and-cattle ranch. A good ten miles from the town of Maverick Springs, and with not even a paved road leading to his place. Besides, there wasn't much of value in his small wood-frame house to make it a target for thieves.
Declan glanced around. Kept listening. And when he was finally fed up with the cold, he drew his Colt and moved away from the barn door so he could follow those footprints. From the looks of it, the prints started at the back of his barn, and that meant somebody had probably walked in from the pasture and checked out the barn itself.
Maybe looking for him.
Or looking to make sure he'd indeed gone on his daily ride.
And then the trespasser had made her way to the back of his house. Declan went in that direction now, using the trees for cover.
Finally, he saw something.
Or rather someone.
There was a person dressed in dark clothes and equally dark sunglasses peering around the edge of his back porch. Judging from her size, it was probably a woman, though he couldn't be positive since his visitor was wearing a black baseball cap slung low on her head, and the brim covered most of her face. Declan expected her to duck out of sight when she spotted him. She didn't.
She put her index finger to her mouth in a keep-quiet gesture.
What the hell?
And just to confuse things even more, she motioned for him to come closer.
Declan debated it. He debated calling out to her, too, but she frantically shook her head and made that keep-quiet gesture again.
He looked to see if she was armed. Couldn't tell. But since she'd had ample opportunity to shoot at him and hadn't, Declan decided to take his chances. He didn't put his gun away, but he went closer.
Yeah, it was a woman all right. About five-six, with an average build. Judging from the strands of hair that had slipped out from the back of the baseball cap, she was a brunette.
"Inside," she whispered and tipped her head to his back door. "Please," she added.
Well, if she was a criminal, she was a polite one, that was for sure. The please didn't sway Declan one bit, but her shaky voice did. There was fear in it. Or something. Something that told him she wasn't a killer.
Well, probably not.
He'd been wrong before. And he had the scar on his chest to prove it.
But did that stop him?
Much to his disgust, nope, it didn't. He'd never been a cautious man, and while this seemed like a really good time to start, Declan went even closer, still looking for any sign that she was armed.
Okay, she was.
Without any prompting, his mysterious visitor opened the side of her jacket to show him the guna Glockthat she had tucked in a shoulder holster. Since she made no attempt to draw it, Declan walked even closer, up the side steps. He also tapped the badge he had pinned to his holster, just in case she didn't know she was dealing with a deputy U.S. marshal.
She kept her head down so he still didn't have a good look at her face. "I know exactly who you are, Declan O'Malley," she whispered.
Well, that wasn't much of a stretch. Everyone in Maverick Springs knew who he was. He and his five foster brothers, who were all marshals, too. Anyone could have found out his name and where he lived within minutes after arriving in town. Heck, he didn't even have a burglar alarm because he figured no one would be stupid enough to do what this woman was apparently trying to do.
"Inside," she repeated.
It wasn't caution but rather common sense that had him staying put when she turned toward his door. "I want answers first," he insisted.
"Shh." The fear in her body language went up a significant notch, and she fired a few nervous glances around his yard.
Confused and now somewhat riled at, well, whatever the heck this was, Declan followed her glances but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Only the woman.
He cupped her chin, lifted it.
Yeah. He recognized her all right, and it wasn't a good kind of recognition, either. Eden Gray.
What in the Sam Hill was she doing here at his house?
He opened his mouth to demand some answers but her hand flew up, and she pressed her fingers to his mouth. Cold fingers at that.
And she smelled like some kind of girlie hand lotion. It definitely didn't go with that Glock she was carrying or the fact that she was trespassing.
"They might hear you," she whispered. "Inside," she insisted again.
She eased down her fingers, stepped back and yanked off her glasses. Those eyes caught him off guard for just a moment. Ice blue but somehow without a hint of cold in them. Definitely memorable, but he hadn't needed to see her eyes to know this was a blast from his past that he didn't want or need.
Well, a blast he didn't need anyway.
For a split second, his body overrode his brain, and that whole want thing came into play. In those brief moments, he didn't see Eden Gray, a person who despised him, but rather a hot woman. One who just happened to be armed and acting crazy.
She swallowed hard.
Something different went through her eyes. Not fear, but Declan recognized the look. It was the quick glance that a woman gave a man when she was interested but didn't want to be.
Declan was afraid he was giving her the same look right back. Oh, man. One day he was going to learn to think with his head only and not some other body part that often got him into trouble.
She swallowed hard again. Turned. And she eased open the door. Sorry, she mouthed.
Declan didn't ask for what. He didn't want to know. He only wanted answers, and that was why he followed her inside to his kitchen.
"Why are you here?" he demanded.
But she still didn't answer. She hurried to the window over his sink and looked out. She did another of those shifty glances that he often did when he was doing surveillance or in the presence of danger.
"You obviously remember me," she finally said.
He gave her a flat look. "Obviously."
"This way," Eden added. "I have to show you something." And she headed toward his living room that was only a few yards away.
She would have made it there, too, but Declan snagged her by the arm and whirled her back around to face him. "Remembering you doesn't tell me why you're here. Now spill it, or I'm tossing you out."
"You can't." Eden was breathing through her mouth now, and her pulse was jumping in her throat. But that didn't stop her from shaking off his grip, catching his arm and pulling him into the living room.
"Stay away from the windows," she warned.
Just on principle and because he was now about twelve steps past being ornery, Declan considered doing the opposite of anything she was asking. "Give me a reason why I should stay away from my own window."
"There's a tiny camera attached to the big oak on the right side of your front porch." Her breath trembled in her throat. "And they're watching the front of the house. Maybe trying to listen, too."
Declan shook his head, stared at her and made a circling motion with his gun for her to continue. He needed more. A lot more, but he needed that "a lot more" to make sense. So far, that wasn't happening.
"Did you miss a dose of meds or something?" he asked.
"No." She stretched that out a few syllables. "I'm not crazy. And I have a good reason for being here."
He stared at her, made the circling motion with his hand again.
"I got here about a half hour ago, while you were out riding," she said. "I've watched you for the past two days, so I know you take a ride this time of morning before you go in to work."
Well, it was an answer all right, but it didn't answer much. "You watched me?"
"Really?" And he didn't take the skepticism out of it, either.
Until this morning when he'd reined in at the barn, he hadn't felt or seen anyone watching him yesterday or the day before. Of course, he'd had a lot on his mind what with his foster father, Kirby Granger, battling cancer. The thought of losing Kirby had been weighing on him. Maybe enough for him to not notice someone stalking him.
He looked her straight in the eye. "Are you going to make me arrest you, or do you plan to keep going with that explanation?"
She made a soft sound of frustration, looked out the window again. "I'm a P.I. now. I own a small agency in San Antonio."
She'd skipped right over the most important detail of her brief bio. "Your father's Zander Gray, a lowlife swindling scum. I arrested him about three years ago for attempting to murder a witness who was going to testify against him, and he was doing hard time before he escaped."
And this was suddenly becoming a whole lot clearer.
"He sent you here," Declan accused.
"No," she quickly answered. "I'm not even sure he's alive."
Okay, maybe not so clear after all.
"But my father might have been the reason they contacted me in the first place," Eden explained. "They might have thought I'd do anything to get back at you for arresting him. I won't."
He made a sound of disagreement. "Since you're trespassing and have been stalking me, convince me otherwise that you're not here to avenge your father."
"I'm not." Not a whisper that time. And there was some fire in those two little words. "But someone's trying to set me up. Earlier this week someone broke into my office, planted some fake financials on my computer and changed the password so I can't delete them from the server. That someone is trying to make it look as if I'm funneling money to a radical militia group buying illegal firearms."
Declan thought about that a second. "Lady, if you wanted me to investigate that, you didn't have to follow me or come to my ranch. My office is on Main Street in town."
Another headshake. "They didn't hire me to go to your office."
Mercy. It was hard to hang on to his temper with this roundabout conversation. "There it is again. That they. They put up the camera that you don't want me to go to the window and see. So who are they?"
"I honestly don't know." She dodged his gaze, tried to turn away, but he took hold of her again and forced her to face him. "After I realized someone had planted that false info on my computer, I got a call from a man using a prepaid cell phone. I didn't recognize his voice. He said if I went to the cops or the marshals, he'd release the info on my computer and I'd be arrested."
And maybe she would be. Because some cops might assume like father, like daughter.
But was she?
Declan pushed that question aside. Right now, that didn't matter. "This unknown male caller is the one who put the camera outside?"
"I think so. If not him, then someone working with or for him. All I know is it's there because I saw a man wearing a ski mask installing it right after you left for your ride."
He shook his head. "If they sent you to watch me, why use a camera?"
"Because the camera is to watch me," she clarified. "To make sure I do what he ordered me to do."
"And what exactly are you supposed to do?" Declan demanded.
Eden Gray shoved her hand over her Glock. "Kill you."