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Jack Hollister pushed open the door to Margaret's Eatery, stomped his boots free of snow and stepped inside to a warmth that promised to thaw his bones. The fragrant aroma of roasting beef and strong coffee made coming back to Great Falls even sweeter.
The door swung open again, and his friend, Mick Vasco, strode in. He stomped his boots, too, then shut out the biting Montana wind with a firm latch.
"Damn, it's cold out there," he said unnecessarily.
Jack swept an automatic glance around the restaurant, but his feet were already moving toward his favorite table. The one against the big picture window, draped with red calico curtains.
Some habits just weren't meant to break.
Ever since his lawman days, he'd fancied a window that gave him a view. It was in his blood that way. A man on the inside who kept track of what was going on on the outside tended to have the advantage.
Mick pulled back the chair across from him and settled in. They took off their hats, hooked them on the back of their chairs and craned their necks to see if the best waitress in all of Great Falls was working her normal Sunday afternoon shift.
Jack's mother, Camille, was already heading toward them, a coffeepot in her hand. By the looks of her flushed cheeks and the wisps of gray curling along her temples, she'd spent the morning in the kitchen again, baking her juicy-on-your-tongue, made-to-perfection fruit pies in between serving customers hungry for Margaret Butterfield's—the restaurant's owner—hearty cooking.
"I expected you two back yesterday," she said quietly, upending a coffee cup. She began to pour. "Problems?"
Jack knew how she used to worry when he rode with the posse. This time would've been no different.
"Not unless you call the past six and a half days being a complete waste of our time a problem," Mick muttered.
"We followed up on some leads that didn't pan out," Jack said, eyeing the steam swirling over the rim of the cup. "Ran us late."
"Too bad." Camille made a sound of sympathy.
"About the leads, I mean." She tilted the pot over the cup Mick held ready and waiting.
Jack grunted. It had been a damned shame they hadn't found any sign of the gang involved in a complex embezzling scheme that stretched clear to Minnesota. Two men in particular who pulled off a train heist outside Great Falls that nearly cost Mick his life and scandalized the reputation of the woman he intended to marry.
"They're probably long gone by now anyway," Camille said. "You did the best you could."
Obviously his best hadn't been good enough.
And the itch was still there. Even now, months after he'd tossed aside his badge, walked away from his dream to be the best lawman this side of the Missouri and started his life over, a different man with a new name, the need for justice continued to burn in his blood.
"You're a cowboy now, Jack," she said in a faintly insistent voice. The one that revealed she knew what he was thinking and didn't approve. Because it scared her. "Not a lawman. Let the police do their job without you."
Jack sipped his coffee. Ignored the bite of fire on his tongue. Ignored her.
But he couldn't ignore Boone and his accomplice, not when they hovered within his every thought, fueling his need to find them, to even the score for the crimes they'd committed.
"Would you like the usual for dinner?" she asked finally, resigned.
He took the distraction she offered and ran with it. "Sounds good."
"Make it meatloaf for me," Mick put in. "With plenty of gravy."
"I'll make sure you get extra potatoes with it. Won't take but a minute," she said with her usual efficiency.
Jack's gaze followed her into the kitchen. She was still a fetching woman for her age, he mused. Slim-waisted and hardworking with an indomitable spirit that belied the difficult life she'd once led.
Yet Jack knew, too, as her only offspring, he was pretty much her sole reason for living. It'd crush her if anything happened to him. After all, it'd been just the two of them, surviving together, for so damn long.
He swallowed down a scowl. The old man had been too selfish to love her in the ways she deserved to be loved. Too stupid to realize their lives would've been so much different—better—if he had loved her.
Jack didn't amend the thought by adding himself into the mix. But he chased the bitterness down with a scalding gulp of coffee that took his mind off the past and brought him roughly back to reality.
"George will be here any minute," Mick said. "Let's order something for him to save time."
Through the picture window glass, Jack spied George Huys already walking down the snow-dusted boardwalk toward the eatery. As police chief for Great Falls, he led the posse in the hunt for the elusive train robbers and had stopped by his office to check for messages before dinner. Jack respected him as a lawman and a friend.
He rose. "I'll have Mom make up a plate for him."
"Bring the coffeepot back with you."
Jack nodded in acknowledgment and headed toward the kitchen. Along the way, he passed tables of diners dressed in their Sunday best, most of them in for dinner after a long morning of church services. The majority of faces were familiar, each one belonging to God-fearing folks that made Great Falls a wise place to live.
Jack was glad this part of Montana was feeling more like home every day. He'd made friends, found a good job at the Wells Cattle Company, and enjoyed a deep friendship with Mick and his half brother, Trey Wells, both of whom made him feel like a part of their family instead of just another cowboy on their big, sprawling ranch.
For now, it was enough.
Jack added the police chief's order to their ticket and took the time to answer Margaret's questions on the posse's attempts in tracking down the outlaws. She had a vested interest in them being found, considering she'd been on the very train they robbed. Her attempt to thwart the crime had all but saved Mick's life and allowed him to escape with Allie Gibson, the victim of the gang's thievery. Margaret's disappointment that they continued to evade capture only strengthened Jack's resolve to hunt them down.
On his way out of the kitchen, he grabbed one of the coffeepots and headed back toward Mick.
"Timothy Richard, watch out!"
Jack abruptly halted just before a three-year-old catapulted to the floor in front of him, and he instinctively lifted the pot high and to the side to keep the rambunctious child from being splattered with hot liquid.
"I'm sorry, Jack." The boy's mother sounded exasperated. She bent to grasp her son's hand and right him again. "He never watches where he's going."
"No harm done, Sara," he said, though they both knew that if he'd tripped over the boy, injury from spilled coffee could've been serious.
"Haven't been able to teach him to walk instead of running all the time," his father added wryly and held Timmy in place with a firm hand on his shoulder. "We can't keep up with him most days."
Jack waved off their apologies with a commiserating chuckle, and the little family headed out of the restaurant at a more sedate pace.
In the next moment, Jack almost tripped again.
A black, deeply grained leather satchel stood angled in the aisle, likely knocked askew when clipped by the boy's foot. Frowning, Jack toed the expensive traveling bag closer to the owner's table and out of harm's way, sliding it next to a snow-wet shoe peeking out from beneath a deep blue hem.
Jack had always been partial to blue, and maybe that's why this particular shade snagged his attention. A rich, vibrant blue, like a sun-drenched ocean.
Or maybe it was the way all that blue draped over a woman's slender lap as she perched on her chair, knees primly together, her head bent while she pored over her menu. Her concentration was so intense, had she even noticed her satchel was likely responsible for Timmy's fall?
Seemed she hadn't, and annoyed from it, Jack continued to his own table. He'd never seen her before, but then Margaret's Eatery was located near the Great Falls train station. Passengers came and went every day.
George Huys entered the restaurant on a swirl of cold air, and by the time he joined them, Jack had a third cup of coffee poured, with the first two topped off and steaming hot.
The police chief tossed a paper on the table and shrugged out of his coat. "Got a telegram while we were gone, Jack. Thought you might be interested."
"Yeah?" He sipped his brew. "What's it say?"
"Black Jack Ketchum is dead."
Jack slowly lowered his cup. He'd had no news of his uncle since the ambush in New Mexico Territory a year ago. That he remained alive until now, running from the law, shouldn't have surprised Jack.
But it did.
"He was blasted at close range trying to rob a train last week." George spoke matter-of-factly, with no sympathy for Jack's loss. "He got away wounded, but they caught him the next day, put him on trial and sentenced him to hang." The police chief grimaced, and for the first time, attempted to find the right words. "It wasn't pretty, but main thing is he's dead."
That old rush of pain reared up fast and fierce again, flooding Jack with the ugly reminder of how he'd been born the son of one outlaw and the nephew of another. Two brothers filled with greed and a taste for killing, who would always have had an appalling disregard for the law if the law hadn't triumphed over them first.
The curse of his bloodline, his need to survive and overcome the hate, had compelled Jack to rid himself of the Ketchum name and take his mother's maiden name of Hollister instead. Playing cowboy at the WCC, immersing himself in a new and different life, had helped, too. Some.
But damned how fate had a way of reminding him he was—and always would be—a Ketchum.
"Wish things could've been different for you." Mick's tone rumbled with understanding.
Jack's mind filled with a whole wagonload of spiteful comments he could make. Contemptuous slurs for the man who had fathered him. But like George Huys and Trey Wells, trusted friends who knew the truth of Jack's identity, Mick had heard them all before.
"Thanks," Jack said instead.
"Some men are just born for trouble," the police chief said with a shake of his head. "Sam and Tom had a mean streak that just wouldn't quit."
Mean? Is that what it was when a father tried to kill his own son? When an uncle charged at his nephew with guns blazing, in hopes the two brothers could escape their crimes, only to commit more?
Jack hated that the pain could still hurt this much. But it did, and when in the hell was he going to get over it? Get on with his life like everyone else?
He could feel Mick and George watching him, and he angled his head to escape their sympathy. Several tables away, his glance stumbled onto the woman dressed in blue.
And latched on.
She was pure perfection in that high-society dress of hers. Trimmed with a black collar that looked like fur, fitted at the waist and shaped to her full breasts, she made a sight that made a man forget.
Perfection. Pure and simple.
God knew Jack needed some of that in his life when his own was just about as imperfect as it could be. The woman made staring a pleasure, compelled Jack to forget his manners and just keep on looking.
She was oblivious to him and most everyone else in the restaurant. Her menu engrossed her as she moved a fingertip precisely across the page, her finely shaped brows puckered in concentration as she read every word.
Mick's announcement broke Jack of his staring, and he spied his mother walking toward them, two hot plates balanced on her left arm and a third in her right hand. In unison, they shuffled their cups to give her room to serve them, and then eyed their meals in blatant appreciation.
"Anything else I can get you boys?" she asked.
"We're fine if you let us keep the coffeepot," George said, reaching to refill his cup. "Can't seem to get warm just yet."
"Go right ahead. There's more on the stove if you need it."
She bustled off again, and they dug in. Jack conceded a good hot meal and plenty of black brew was all he needed to feel human again. By the time they finished massive portions of whortleberry pie for dessert, the pot was empty.
"I'll get another one," Jack said, rose and retraced his steps to the kitchen. On the way back, he noticed the woman in blue waving her fingers to get his attention.
"Excuse me, sir," she said in a voice as soft as thistledown. "Are we to pour our own coffee here?"
Clearly the notion was foreign to her. As pampered as she looked, Jack wondered if she'd ever served anyone a meal before. Or made her own coffee.
"Not as a rule," he said. Of course, her eyes were blue. As blue as blue could be.