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Detective Mason Blackpaw watched the guard close the prison doors behind Pruitt Ables and breathed a sigh of relief that the Slasher case was finally over. Ables had been the missing link in their investigation, but once they'd realized Robert Dugan, the man who'd viciously killed a half dozen women, had a half brother, the pieces had fallen into place.
Mason exited the prison with a satisfied smile. He was a cowboy, a loner and a cop. He spent most of his days tracking down criminals.
His job was his life and that was the way he liked it.
No ties. No one to nag him about not being home when he was on a case. No one to expect him to be something he wasn't.
Except for the law enforcement agencies. Tracking had come so natural to him that he was called in on high profile missing persons and most wanted cases.
But now that he and Miles McGregor had locked up the sociopath and his accomplice, they'd decided to take some much needed R and R. Miles was headed to his new ranch with his son and new wife, and he had decided to devote some time to the troubled boys at the Bucking Bronc Lodge.
He checked his watch, then jumped in his SUV and drove toward the BBL. He'd promised Brody Bloodworth, the founder of the operation, that he'd teach the kids some survival skills as well as tracking techniques.
An hour later, he sat astride his favorite chestnut and introduced himself to the small group of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. Ray was thirteen, had been beaten over and over by his old man and had a bad attitude. Wally was twelve and had lost an eye in a freak accident. Pablo had been in and out of foster homes and juvy.
And Carlos he had been a hero of sorts when the Slasher had taken some of the kids and Jordan Wells, Miles's fiancée, hostage a few weeks ago.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
The boys nodded, although Ray looked surly and Wally a little unsure in the saddle. He'd keep an eye on him, maybe ask Johnny Long, the rodeo star of the group, to spend a little extra time working with the kid on riding skills and building his confidence. "We're riding out to the creek on the south end," he said.
He led the troops while Carlos held up the rear. As they rode, Mason pointed out landmarks, the different varieties of plant life on the property and how to use the sun as a compass.
When they neared the creek, they climbed down from their horses, and he gave them a short lesson on herbs and plants that could be used for medicinal purposes. They hiked into the woods several hundred feet, and he pointed out some poisonous berries and explained how important it was to know the difference between what was safe to eat and what wasn't if you were ever stranded in the wilderness.
"That's what the Indians do, ain't it?" Wally asked. "They make medicine from plants."
"You're an Indian, aren't you?" Pablo asked.
Mason forced a smile. "Yes, I'm part Comanche. And yes, many herbal medicines and cures originated from Native American culture."
He was proud of his heritage, but he'd also encountered prejudice at times. Shocking that it still existed but it did. God knows he'd suffered the brunt of it a few times over the years. The last time had been seared into his memory. He had the scars to prove it.
But the boys didn't need to hear that.
Late afternoon shadows slashed the treetops as they walked along the stream, and he pointed out beaver teeth marks on a log and a coyote's paw prints near the water.
A squawking sound cracked the air, and he glanced up and noticed several vultures circling above a rocky section a little farther south. An uneasy feeling splintered through him.
Vultures circling An animal was probably dead. Maybe a deer or another small animal.
He had to check it out.
"Guys, I'm going to ride over there and see what's going on."
Wally had been studying the beaver teeth marks. "We want to go, too."
Two of the vultures swooped down. "I'd better go alone," he said, hoping to shelter the boys from the grisly sight in case there was trouble.
Ray folded his arms with a belligerent look. "We ain't kids no more," he said. "I thought you were going to teach us survival skills."
"Yeah," Pablo said with a scowl. "How we supposed to learn to track if you don't show us?"
They were right. Besides, these kids were tough. He hadn't wanted to be treated like a child when he was a teenager.
"All right," he said. "But stay behind me. And do what I say."
The boys mounted quickly, then Miles led the posse along the creek. The sun was dipping lower, but the temperature had risen today, and sweat beaded on his brow as the acrid scent of death drifted toward him.
He peered through some brush where he noticed one of the vultures descend, and saw a mound of rocks beside a mesquite tree. Hmm he'd expected a dead calf. Maybe a deer carcass. But he couldn't see from where he was.
He halted his horse, then motioned for the boys to wait.
"Carlos, stay here with them while I check it out." He dismounted, tipped his Stetson back and surveyed the area as he broke through the thicket of trees.
With each step he took, though, his gut tightened. The mound of rocks the stones the way they were placed
He'd seen it before.
Dammit. It was a grave.
Sucking in a sharp breath, he scanned the area again, searching for anything suspect. For someone watching.
But an eerie quiet settled over the land, his shaky breath rattling in the silence, as he knelt to examine the stones. His cop instincts kicked in, and he removed a bandanna from his pocket and used it like a glove as he gently lifted two of the stones.
Anger shot through him.
A woman was in the ground, her eyes blank and staring up at him in death.
Dr. Cara Winchester rubbed at her lower back as she closed the file on her desk. "Are you certain you want to go through with the adoption, Ramona?" she asked the Hispanic woman sitting across from her.
Ramona nodded, her expression torn. "I don't know what else to do. How I raise this baby with no money for food?"
Cara offered her a gentle smile. She did what she could for her patients at the Winchester Clinic, but unfortunately she couldn't support them all financially herself.
"Why don't we set you up with an appointment with Sherese and she can discuss some options with you, maybe help you find a job."
"Si, thank you, Dr. Winchester."
Cara walked her to the door, sympathy for the woman and the baby filling her. Her hand automatically went to her own rounded belly, and protective instincts surged to life.
Thankfully she had the resources to take care of herself and her child, but not every woman had the same good fortune.
Not that she didn't wish the father was in the picture
Sadness washed over her as Mason Blackpaw's face flashed in her mind. She had fallen hard for the sexy cowboy cop, but in the end he'd trampled her heart and walked away without looking back.
Three weeks later, she'd discovered she was pregnant. She had considered calling him, but he'd made no bones about the fact that he didn't want to settle down. No, he'd spewed some nonsense about how a relationship with a white woman would never work. His argument had been so archaic she'd been furious.
Besides, she and the baby were a package deal.
And if he didn't want a white woman for a wife, he wouldn't want a baby with her, would he?
Her phone trilled, and she hurried to answer it, dismissing thoughts of Mason. But ever since she'd seen his picture in the paper with Miles McGregor, heroes because they'd solved a huge serial killer case, she hadn't been able to stop thinking about him.
Or remembering how heavenly it had felt to be in his arms.
Her phone trilled again, and she snagged it from her desk, tucking Ramona's file in the box to be refiled as she clicked to answer. "Dr. Winchester."
"Cara, it's Sheriff McRae."
Tension knotted her shoulders at his tone. "What's wrong?"
"I just received a call from Mason Blackpaw out at the BBL. He found a body on the ranch."
A shudder tore through Cara. Mason was at the BBL? And he'd found a body.
"Cara," the sheriff said. "Did you hear me?"
She swallowed back the sudden case of nerves assaulting her. She hadn't expected to ever see Mason again.
That he'd never find out about the baby. That she wouldn't have to deal with that kind of rejection.
"Yes," she said, struggling to regain control. "Who did he find?" Please, Lord, not one of the kids.
"We don't have an ID yet. Blackpaw said it appears to be a young woman, probably early twenties. Can you meet me there?"
"Of course. I'll get my medical bag and be right out." Not that visiting crime scenes, if this was even that, was her favorite part of the job, but since she'd opened her clinic, she'd officially been named the assistant coroner for lack of anyone else to fill the job. Hopefully this was an accident, and she'd be able to avoid Mason.
The sheriff gave her the location, and she tensed when she realized it was close to her own cabin. Then she grabbed her purse and doctor's bag and headed to the front office. Sherese, her assistant nurse and receptionist, had already left for the day, so she locked up, then rushed to her Pathfinder.
The short drive to the ranch only heightened her anxiety. As if her baby sensed trouble, he kicked the entire way, reminding her that he was an active little boy and couldn't be forgotten.
That he would make his arrival in less than a month.
Would he look like his father? Have that strong Native American jaw? Mason's high cheekbones?
His stubborn independence? Or maybe he'd get that stubborn streak from her. No, Mason had been stubborn, too. He hadn't cared enough to even call her after he'd left. Because he hadn't loved her.
Dusk was setting, streaking the sky with orange and red hues as she drove on to the ranch and veered down the road leading to the creek. The BBL covered hundreds of acres of ranch land with rich lush pastures for the cattle side of the operation and a quadrant designated for the horses complete with riding pens, stables, barns and cabins.
Ahead, she spotted Sheriff McRae's police car along with a minivan and a pickup truck.
She slowed, then parked and rubbed at her back again as she climbed from her SUV. The wooded area near the creek was at least a mile from the main lodge and camps that housed the campers.
What was Mason doing out here anyway?
Gripping her jacket around her in hopes that it might camouflage her condition, she grabbed her doctor's bag, heaved herself out of the Pathfinder, and walked toward the sheriff's car. She spotted McRae talking to Brody, then noticed Kim Woodstock, a counselor on the BBL, sitting on some rocks with a group of boys.
Had the boys seen the body, as well?
The wind picked up, swirling leaves around her as she neared the group. She gestured in greeting to Kim, then Brody and the sheriff.
"The body is over there," the sheriff said.
"Do you think it was an accident?" Cara asked.
He removed a roll of crime scene tape from the car. "Don't think so. She was buried and covered in stones."
Cara tensed. No, that didn't sound accidental
"Come on," the sheriff said. "I know you want to look at the body while there's still plenty of light. Then we can move her to the morgue before dark."
Cara held her bag in front of her as he led her through the bushes. She braced herself to see Mason, but still her heart fluttered madly when she spotted his big body and that black Stetson. The first time she'd met him, she'd thought he looked like a renegade from the wild West.
He had certainly made love like one.
He was kneeling with his back to her, most likely examining the scene. But still he stirred her blood like no other man ever had.
"Detective Blackpaw," Sheriff McRae said. "Coroner's here to take a look."
Mason turned his head and spotted her, and shock lit his piercing dark eyes for a moment before he masked it. "You're the coroner?"
She nodded. She'd met Mason while she was doing a residency and volunteering on the reservation nearby. "I have a clinic in town now, but I also serve as assistant coroner."
His gaze raked over her, his jaw tightening, and she was grateful for the bushes between them.
But she knew her reprieve wouldn't last long.
Still, she had to play it cool. So she pulled on latex gloves, determined to keep this encounter on a professional level. For all he knew, she'd moved on.
And she had no doubt that he had. Mason was a sexual man.
The image of him with another woman taunted her. Made her want to scream.
But she'd be damned if she'd show that she was jealous.
"What happened?" she asked as the sheriff began to comb the area for evidence.
Mason turned back to the scene, and began snapping photographs. "Boys and I were out riding and I saw vultures," he said. "So I decided to check it out. When I saw the stones, I realized it was a grave."
Cara inched closer, the stench filling her nostrils. She'd smelled death before, but pregnancy accentuated her senses, and not in a good way. Then she spotted the woman's eyes staring up at her, cold and lifeless, and she had to swallow back bile.
"Is there some significance to the stones and the way they're arranged?"
"Yes. It's ritualistic, a Comanche tradition," he said in a clipped tone.
"So whoever buried her must have been Native American?"
"Probably, but we can't be sure. It could be someone obsessed with the traditions and rituals of the Indian people. Or even someone who killed the woman and wanted to make it appear like a Native buried her."
His tone was so curt that she realized he was going to play it cool, as if nothing had happened between them. Heck, he'd probably forgotten about her while she carried a reminder of him with her daily.
Fighting hurt and irritation, she took a deep breath. "You think she was murdered?"
He nodded, then moved aside. He had uncovered most of the woman's body. "What do you think?"
Cara gasped. The woman had definitely been murdered. Her stomach had been carved open in a brutal mess.
She was also one of Cara's patients.