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She stood on a slight rise in the middle of a prairie, the golden grasses wilted and dying. Winter hovered on the horizon, gray clouds growing ever larger, harbingers of the snows to come.
Despite her goose-down jacket, she shivered, wondering where she'd left her gloves and hat. Anyone with sense wouldn't come out in subzero temperatures without the proper clothing. Had she lost her mind?
As she pondered this conundrum, she heard a bleating sound as if a lamb had been separated from its mother. Where did the cry come from? She spun three-hundred-sixty degrees but all she could see was prairie for miles and miles. Not another living soul, animal or human, just herself alone on an endless plain.
Was it an animal separated from its mother? Her heart wept for the frightened creature.
Thinking she might have imagined the sound, she turned to find her way home. Home to the little cottage on Painted Rock, the South Dakota Indian Reservation where she lived with her son, Dakota.
The cry sounded again, only this time less like a lamb and more like the plaintive whimper of a baby.
Her baby. "Dakota?" Her heartbeat picked up pace until it pounded against her ribcage. She couldn't see her son in the vastness of the open prairie. Why was she here? Why had she left Dakota alone in his bed?
She took off at a run, knowing neither the direction nor the distance to town. All she knew was that she had to get to Dakota. He was crying—he needed her. The more she ran, the slower her legs moved until she slid into a wallow, her legs dragged down by the weight of cold, clammy mud filling her boots and coating her clothes.
"Can't stop. Must get to Dakota." Leaning to the side, she grasped an outstretched branch from a tree she hadn't seen a moment before. The branch became a hand, locking with her fingers, dragging her to safety, freeing her from the pit of glue-like sludge.
For a moment, she lay with her face on the ground, gasping for breath. When she lifted her head to thank her rescuer, her dead husband stared down at her, his face slashed with blood, his eye sockets vacant. Again, he held out his hand to help her to her feet.
Maggie screamed and fell backward into the ditch, the sucking mire like fingers grasping at her arms and legs, dragging her deeper and deeper until mud covered her face, filling her lungs. When she thought her chest would explode from lack of air, blessed blackness swallowed her.
MAGGIE BRANDT sat straight up in bed, shaking.
"Dakota," she said into the darkness, pulling in deep breaths of cool night air.
Her digital clock glowed—4:15 a.m. It wasn't due to go off for another two hours. With her heart still pounding in her ears, she knew she wouldn't get back to sleep.
Had she been startled awake by the dream? Or had Dakota really cried out in his sleep?
Shivering, Maggie slung the covers aside and slid from her bed. She padded barefoot across the carpeted floor, her feet moving more freely than they had when mired in the mud of her nightmare.
Why was it so cold in the house? If it was this chilly in her room, what about the baby's room? Had he kicked his covers off? Why hadn't he woken up crying?
Her steps quickened.
To conserve on her gas bill, she'd set the heat five degrees lower than usual. Had she turned it down too low?
On the way down the hall toward Dakota's room, she passed the thermostat with only a cursory glance, determined to fix the heating problem after she'd assured herself that Dakota was okay. Tendrils of frigid air caressed her bare feet and calves, rising from the floor. Her breath caught in her throat, making it difficult for her to fill her lungs.
Frigid night air drifted in from the bedroom in front of her—it had nothing to do with the thermostat.
"Dakota." Maggie raced into the minuscule room, barely large enough for the baby's furniture. The small window stood wide open, the blue-and-white cloud curtains flapping in the bitter wind.
"Oh my God," Maggie whispered. Her feet carried her one agonizing step at a time toward the crib of her five-month-old son, her heart choking the air from her throat.
Even before she peered through the colorful mobile into the nest of blue blankets, she knew.
Dakota was gone.
A SHRILL BEEPING NOISE pierced his sleep, forcing Joe Lonewolf awake. He fumbled in the dark for his pager, until his fingers curled around it and he lifted it close to his face. In bright green digital letters he read Call Maggie, followed by a phone number and 911.
His pulse raced through his veins and as he swung out of bed the blankets and sheets fell in a careless heap to the floor.
Why would Maggie call at...he peered at his clock...four-twenty in the morning? Hell, why would Maggie call at all?
He grabbed for the phone and dialed the number, every cell in his body on high alert.
"Joe?" Maggie answered the phone before it had barely rang once. "I need you." Her words came out in a sob, reaching across the line like a hand curling around his heart.
"What's wrong, Maggie?" He could hear the faint wail of a siren in the background. "Are you okay?"
No response, only the sound of someone taking a ragged breath.
"Maggie! Talk to me!" he shouted, panic tightening his chest.
"Joe, Dakota's gone." A sharp clattering crackled across the line and the phone went dead.
What the hell was going on? Before he could form another coherent thought, he was throwing on clothes, a jacket and hopping into his boots. He hit the door running. Maggie needed him. He had to get there.
Outside his house, the predawn air hit him like a slap in the face. What was it, minus ten degrees already? And it wasn't even the end of October. The first snow hadn't fallen.
His black SUV had a thin layer of ice covering the windshield and it took two cranks before the engine turned over. Maggie needed him. The thought replayed through his head, a mantra to keep him moving forward when he could hardly see through the windshield.
Dust and gravel spewed to the sides as he spun the vehicle out of his driveway. He raced down the road until he passed the bright green city limit sign for Buffalo Bluff, the largest town on the Painted Rock Indian Reservation. For once in his life, he wished he didn't live so far out of town. The eight miles to the small community took an eternity. At the same time, the drive gave him too much time to think about Maggie—his stepbrother's widow.
Had it only been two weeks since Paul's accident? It seemed like a month had passed from the time he'd received the call that his stepbrother had run off the road on his way home from work at the Grand Buffalo Casino. He'd been pronounced dead at the scene, leaving behind his wife and baby.
Joe slammed his hand to the steering wheel, still angry he hadn't lived up to the promise he'd made his mother— to watch out for Paul.
Now Paul was dead. But his baby had his whole life ahead and he needed someone to look out for him. What had Maggie meant, he was gone?
Dakota. The baby boy still gnawed at Joe's gut. He should have been mine. As soon as the thought surfaced, Joe pushed it down. He had no right to feel that way. Maggie should have been mine. His foot left the accelerator and his Explorer slowed in its headlong race across the reservation. None of this was supposed to happen.
Maggie wasn't supposed to marry Paul, Paul wasn't supposed to die, and Dakota should be tucked in bed sleeping like the baby he was. Why then was he racing into town, fear gripping his chest?
Joe skidded his SUV against the curb next to the little house on Red Feather Street and slammed the shift to Park. As he leaped from the vehicle, he squinted at the bright array of lights from squad cars and state police vehicles. The wind had died down during the night, but the smell of snow sifted through the morning air.
He blinked at the glare of headlights and strobes, his eyes stinging in the frosty air. Four hours of sleep wasn't much to go on and he hadn't had a drop of caffeine since yesterday noon. Not that he needed caffeine.
Not since Maggie's call.
Delaney Toke, one of Joe's tribal police officers, stepped down from the concrete porch. "Glad you came. She just sits there, rocking back and forth."
"Apparently, someone came in during the night and stole the baby."
Although he'd been prepared by Maggie's words, Joe still felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. "How, when?"
"We don't know.All we can guess is somewhere between midnight and four-fifteen this morning when she called."
"Thanks, Del." He moved around the officer and strode toward the door.
Maggie might be his brother's widow, but she'd been Joe's woman first. Until he'd gone to Iraq. He didn't regret the time he'd served for his country, but he did regret the time he'd been away. He'd never thought Maggie would marry Paul.
But why wouldn't she? Joe hadn't made any promises—he'd actually told her they had no future and not to wait for him.
Standing in desert BDUs with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he'd fought his desire to take her into his arms as her face paled and her eyes pooled with tears. Had he really expected her to wait around for his return from the dangers of war? He'd been a bastard and gotten what he deserved when he came home to find Maggie married.
Too tired to think or to allow old memories to clutter his head, he sighed and turned toward the door. A state policeman was unrolling yellow crime scene tape around the yard to cordon off Maggie's house from curious neighbors.
A cameraman from the satellite station out at the casino was already panning the scene. Joe bypassed the man and headed for the door.
"Hey, Joe," Del called out. "Sorry about your nephew." Joe nodded briefly, his gut clenching the closer he got to the door. He hadn't seen Maggie since his stepbrother's funeral. But she'd called him. Fear for her child must have made her desperate. Joe knew she'd rather call anyone but him after how he'd treated her over a year ago.
Brown grass crunched beneath his feet, brittle from the subzero nights. A few tenacious leaves clung to the ash tree in the front yard, soon to be whipped away by forty-mile-an-hour winter winds. He tried to focus on the insignificant details, instead of on his imminent meeting with the woman he'd spent the better part of a year trying to forget.
Had she married Paul out of revenge?
No. Maggie wasn't the vengeful type. Then, had she always been in love with Paul? Joe felt his chest contract. Had their night of passion been nothing but lust, just as he'd told her?
The letter from Leotie two months after his deployment to Iraq said it all. Maggie and Paul had gotten married not long after Joe'd left. She said they were happy, in love and expecting a baby.
The news hit him like a mortar to his belly.
As he'd walked night patrols in the desert, he'd wondered what Maggie would have done if he'd asked her to wait for him. Would she have married Paul anyway?
He'd been certain Maggie had no place on the reservation or in his Indian way of life. Just as he'd made a promise to his mother to watch out for his stepbrother, he'd made another promise to his father to raise his sons to know the Lakota ways. Maggie would not fit in with that promise. She was white, he was Indian. Their two worlds could not converge— or so he'd thought a lifetime ago, before he'd gone to war.
Now he was here for Dakota. The little boy with the face of an angel. With dark auburn hair curling around his head, he was the image of his mother. It hurt Joe to look at him. The child perched in his mother's arms at Paul's funeral, staring with wide, brown eyes at the gathering of people. Oblivious to the seriousness of the occasion, he hadn't understood the finality of his father's death.
Joe told himself the boy was his primary reason for standing in front of the little clapboard house, not his mother.
Maggie appeared in the doorway as if conjured from his deepest thoughts. Her pale skin was almost translucent, the light dusting of freckles even seeming faded. Yet, despite her red-rimmed eyes, she was every bit as beautiful as the first time he'd seen her in the tribal youth center. She'd stood out like a flame amidst the dark-haired, dark-skinned teenagers she was shooting hoops with.