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Cole James blinked. As he did, he expected the image to fade away.
This wouldn't be the first time that his eyesaided and abetted by his hearthad played tricks on him.
In the beginning, when Veronica McCloud had initially left Redemptionand hima little more than six years ago, he kept seeing her all the time. He'd see her walking down Main Street, or standing in line at the movie theater they used to go to regularly, or passing by the sheriff's office which had, these last four years, all but become his second home.
He couldn't begin to count the number of times he'd thought he saw her peering in the window, a funny little half smile on her lips, the one that always used to make his heart stop. But when he'd bolt from his chair to chase after her, or run across the street in pursuit, ready to call out her name, he'd discover that it was someone else who just happened to look like Ronnie.
The worst times were when there turned out to be no one there at all, just his memory, torturing him.
Eventually, his "sightings" of Ronnie became less frequent. Whole days and then even whole weeks would go by without him even thinking that he saw Veronica McCloud, the woman who had, for all intents and purposes, tapdanced on his heart and then deliberately disappeared from his life six summers ago.
Sheriff Cole James frowned as he watched the woman across the street walking toward the wooden building in the middle of the block: Ed Haney's Livestock Feed Emporium.
She wasn't disappearing.
Instead, she looked as if she had every intention of walking into the store. Just like Ronnie used to when her dad sent her into town.
The funny thing about this particular mirage was that all the other times, when he thought he saw Ronnie, she looked pretty much the way she had that last night by the lake.
The night that would forever be imprinted on his soul.
Her goldenblond hair would be flowing loose about her shoulders, that soft, creamcolored cotton peasant blouse dipping down low, making him all but swallow his tongue.
Each and every time he thought he saw Ronnie, she would be that greeneyed hellion, part eternal female, part feisty tomboy. The woman who could instantly make him weak in the knees with just one look.
But this time, the mirageRonnielooked different.
This time, she looked a lot like the picture she'd once showed him of her late mother, Margaret, when she'd been a young woman. The photograph was taken just after she'd married Ronnie's dad, Amos.
Old image or new, why wasn't she vanishing the way she always did? he wondered impatiently.
Damn it all to hell, Cole silently swore. Lifting his Stetson, he dragged a hand through his dark chestnut, almost black, hair. Exasperation zigzagged through him.
He wasn't going to go and check it out. He wasn't. The people in town looked up to him. They depended on him for guidance. It went without saying that the sheriff of Redemption, a pocketsize town fifty miles north of Helena in the proud state of Montana, wasn't supposed to be given to having hallucinations. Leastwise, not without smoking somethingwhich he hadn't done except for that one time when he was fifteen. He did take the occasional shot of whiskey, but only when the weather turned bitter cold, and never more than one. And even then, it was to warm himself up more than for any other reason.
He didn't need anything to warm him up now, even though it was September and this year the temperature was already dropping down at night into regions that tried a hearty man's soul. Just thinking of Ronnie, even after all this time, more than sufficiently warmed him up, thank you very much.
Cole bit off the rough edge of a curse. The next minute, he was making a Uturn at the end of the block. Telling himself he now officially qualified as the town idiot, he turned his truck around and slowly drove along the length of the street until his vehicle was parallel to the Livestock Feed Emporium.
The mirage had definitely gone inside.
Cole stopped the truck and squinted, looking in through the store's huge bay window. From where he sat, his hallucination was talking to the store's owner, Ed Haney. And Ed answered the hallucination.
Cole pushed back his black Stetson with his thumb and blinked again. Nothing changed. Either he was having one hell of a daydream or
The word hung in midair, refusing to gather any more words around it. Refusing to allow him to even finish his thought.
He couldn't finish his thought.
Because it wasn't true. He knew that, knew it as sure as he knew his own name.
Veronica McCloud had left that summer six years ago. Left Redemption and left him. Left after they had enjoyed possibly the best night of their livescertainly the best night of his life. And not once, not once had she come back to visit, or just to talk or even to throw rocks at him. She hadn't come back at all.
She never wrote, never called, never sent carrier pigeons with messages attached to their tiny little ankles. Never tried to get in contact with him in any way at all. Half a dozen times he'd set out to see her father or her older brother, Wayne, to ask them for her address or her phone number, just about any way at all to get in contact with her. But each time he set out, he never quite completed his journey.
His pride just wouldn't let him.
After all, he hadn't left her, she had left him. And if she hadn't wanted to stay gone, to remain missing from his life, well, hell, she knew where to find him.
He had the same phone number, the same address, the same everything he'd always had. None of that had ever changed, not since they were kids together, growing up in each other's shadows.
Back then, Ronnie had been a rough and tumble tomboy, more agile and skilled at being a boy than any of the boys in town. Partially, he'd always suspected, to curry her father's attention and favor. And she'd always been a type A competitor.
In any event, they'd been each other's best friends almost from the moment of birth. And they shared everything. They bolstered each other, supported each other and just enjoyed being kids in an area of the country that was still relatively uncomplicated by the demands of progress.
Everyone in Redemption knew everyone else by their first name. The people of the town were always ready to lend support through the hard times and especially ready to rejoice during the good times.
Sure the twentyfirst century had brought some changes to the town, but not all that much. Certainly not enough to make him want to be anywhere else but right where he was.
But not Ronnie. For Ronnie it was different. Once she hit her teens, Ronnie started talking about someday wanting to go someplace where "the possibilities were endless and the buildings stretch up against the sky. Someplace where I don't have to be stuck on the ranch all the time if I don't want to be."
At the time, he'd thought it was just talk. Or at least, he'd hoped so.
But then she started to talk about it more and more. Her big dream was to go to college, to get that allimportant piece of paper that called her a graduate and allowed her to "make something of myself."
As if she wasn't good enough.
That was around when they began having arguments, real arguments, not just squabbles and differences of opinion about things like who had the faster horsehe didor who was the better ridershe was.
Moreover, Ronnie wanted him to come with her. She wanted him to go to college, too, and "become someone"as if he couldn't be anything without holding that fouryear degree in his hand.
But all he wanted to be was a rancher, like his father, and she, well, she didn't want to live on a ranch her whole life. Didn't want to be a rancher's wife and certainly didn't want to live and die in Redemption without "leaving her mark" on the world, whatever that meant.
He'd thought after that huge blowup they'd had that last night at the lakeand especially after the way that they'd made upthat the argument had finally been settled once and for all.
To his great satisfaction.
Apparently, he'd been wrong because when he woke up that morning at the lake, she wasn't there beside him the way she had been when they'd fallen asleep.
She wasn't anywhere.
Suddenly uneasy, afraid something had happened to her, he still pulled together his courage and went to her house just in case she'd decided to go home. When he asked to see her, Amos McCloud had looked at him
for a long, awful moment, then said he'd just missed her. She and Wayne had just left. Her older brother was driving her to the next town. From there she was taking the train to Great Falls. There was an airport in Great Falls. And planes that would take her away from here. Away from him.
Remembering all that created the same pang in his heart that had gripped him that terrible morning.
"Hey, Sheriff, you gonna sit in your truck idlin' like that all morning?"
The sharply voiced question came from directly behind him. Wally Perkins was sticking his head out of his dark green pickup truck and he looked none too happy about the fact that the sheriff's truck had stopped moving and was blocking his way.
Wally knew that he could always pull his vehicle around him, Cole thought, but it didn't seem exactly right, seeing as how he represented the law and all.
"Sorry, Wally. Got lost in my own thoughts," Cole murmured the apology.
With that, he pulled his truck headfirst into the first parking spot he could. It was in front of the next building, just one door down from the Emporium.
Cole cut off his engine and sat in the truck a moment longer.
If he had any sense at all, he silently told himself, he'd start the vehicle up again, go back to his office and work on this month's monthly report. A report that was tedious given that there was actually very little to report. Crime in this small town of three thousand strong involved nuisance disturbances and not much else.
Of course, there was that horrible accident two weeks ago involving Amos McCloud and his son, Wayne, and a trucker who had been driving crosscountry, but that wasn't a crime, either, not in the sense that all those primetime TV programs liked to highlight. His investigation had shown that inclement weather and bad brakes had been to blame for the truck suddenly jackknifing. Amos had seen the accident happening but it had been too late. He couldn't stop his own truck in time.
Lucky for Wayne and Amos, Cole had been driving by or there might not have been anything left of the two men except for bits of cinders. Racing from his own truck, a sense of urgency sending huge amounts of adrenaline through his body, he'd managed to get first Amos and then Wayne out. The latter had been brutal. The cab of the truck had folded like a metal accordion, trapping Wayne in its metal embrace. He'd worked like the devil to get Wayne free and had succeeded just seconds before the whole damn truck exploded.
Fortunately, no one had died at the scene. But the jury was still out about the final count. The trucker and Amos had been pretty banged up, but Wayne had been unconscious when he was taken to the hospital in Helena.
He still was.
Was that why she was here? Cole wondered suddenly, straightening in his seat. Had Ronnie come back because of the accident? He might have tried to contact her about the accident himself if he'd known how to find her, but she'd done a good job of disappearing from his life.
"Damn it, she's not here any more than she was all those other times you thought you saw her," he declared angrily, upbraiding himself.
If he got out of the truck and went into the Emporium to investigate, he would feel like a damn idiot once he proved to himself that she wasn't really there.
More than likely, it'd turn out to be some other woman. Or maybe nobody at all.
But if he didn't go in, if he went back to his onestory, 1800squarefoot office, and tried to get some work done, this was going to eat at him all day. He knew that. Especially since he hadn't imagined seeing her in a while now. Almost a whole month had gone by without a socalled "Ronnie sighting."
It had begun to give him real hope. He was beginning to think he was finally, finally over her. For real this time. Not the way he'd thought before, the time he'd gotten engaged to Cyndy Foster at the diner.
Getting engaged to Cyndy had just been a desperate act on his part to force himself to move on. Except that he really couldn't. Not then. And when he caught himself almost calling Cyndy Ronnie one night, he knew it wouldn't be fair to Cyndy to go through with the wedding.
So he'd called it off and tried to explain to Cyndy that he thought she deserved better than spending her life with a man who was only half there. He'd hoped she'd take it well, the way he'd meant it. But she didn't. His ears had stung for a week from the riot act she'd read him at the top of her lungs. Not that he hadn't deserved it.
From that point on, he dedicated himself to the job of being town sheriff and saw to it that he was a dutiful son, as well. Cole figured he'd either eventually work Ronnie out of his system, or become a confirmed bachelor.
These last few months, he'd begun to think that he was finally coming around, accepting what his life had become.
A lot he knew, Cole thought sarcastically. If he was on the road to being "cured," what the hell was he doing having another damn hallucination?
Only one way to battle this, he decided, and that was to walk in, see who Ed was really talking to and be done with all this racing pulse nonsense.
With that, Cole pulled his key out of the truck's ignition.
Tucking the key into the breast pocket of his shirt, he shifted in his seat and opened the driver's side door. He got out and walked the short distance to the Livestock Feed Emporium. Cole deliberately avoided glancing in through the window, giving himself a moment to prepare for the inevitable disappointment.