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By Doreen Roberts
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSheriff Cully Black jammed his fists hard into the pockets of his black windcheater. Seventy feet below where he stood on a craggy bluff of the mountain, the twin beams from his deputies' flashlights probed the thick shadows of the night. They roamed across the wreckage of the familiar pickup, searching for signs of life.
Cully knew it was pointless. No one could have survived that crash. He tilted his chin high enough to see past the wide brim of his hat and stared bleakly at the stars scattered across the dark velvet sky. Maybe someone had borrowed the truck. Maybe it was someone else lying crushed behind the wheel.
It was a slim hope but he held on to it until Jed and Cory climbed back up the steep gully and reached the road, both of them panting from the exertion.
Cully braced himself. In the half-light of the waning moon he saw Jed's face. The deputy had trouble meeting his gaze.
"Sorry, Cully," he muttered. "Guess there's nothing we can do now."
Cully nodded, his lips clamped so tightly together he could taste blood. When he could draw breath, he asked harshly, "Both of them?"
"Dead sure," Jed told him, with just a trace of irony.
"Okay. I'll wait for the medic." Cully checked his watch. "You two get back to bed. It'll be dawn in an hour or two."
"I'll wait with you." Jed tipped his hat back and scratched his head.
"Me, too," Cory muttered.
"He's gotta come out from Rapid City," Cully reminded them. "That's more than forty miles away." As if echoing his words, the thin wail of a siren floated across the mountainside on the wings of a strong breeze.
"Reckon that's him now," Jed said quietly.
Still unable to accept what had happened, Cully drew an unsteady breath. "You're sure. About down there, I mean."
Jed's face looked drawn in the ghostly moonlight. "Cully ..."
Cully lifted his hand. "Okay. I just want to know, that's all."
He'd seen more than his share of death and destruction during his years in law enforcement. He was hardened by it, almost to the point of detachment. It was part of the job - a job he struggled to give his all.
The law and his horses. That was all he needed to make him happy. There was nothing better to keep his mind off the seamy side of life than taking a wild ride in the saddle under a western sky - head on into the clean, sharp winds that blew in from the mountains.
Right now he wished like hell that he was riding into that wind. Right now he didn't want to look death in the face. No matter how tough a skin he'd grown, it couldn't protect him now. Because down there, crushed inside what was left of the shattered pickup, lay the mangled bodies of two people who'd meant the world to him.
Normally his deputies wouldn't have called him out to the scene of an accident. They would have handled it themselves and made their report in the morning. It had been Jed who'd recognized the pickup and figured he'd want to know about it. Half-asleep, Cully had thrown on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, grabbed his jacket and leaped into his Jeep to hightail it out to Gold Peak.
Jim and Mabel Corbett weren't just friends and neighbors. They'd given him a home and stability when he'd needed it the most. They'd given him the chance to turn his life around and become a man.
At the sound of Jed's worried voice, Cully lifted his hat and settled it more firmly on his head. The siren wailed again, much closer. "They're almost here," he said shortly. "I'm going down there to wait for them."
"I'll come, too."
Cully raised his hand. "No. Give me a moment alone with them." Without waiting for an answer he plunged, half-sliding, half-leaping, down the gully.
He had to hold his breath as he directed the beam of his flashlight over the crumpled vehicle. Thank God it hadn't caught fire. He'd prepared himself for what he might see but when he caught sight of Jim's hand in a death grip on the wheel, his throat closed on him.
According to Jed, the call had come in more than an hour ago. A passing motorist had seen the headlights of the truck careening down the mountain road, then vanish. The witness had also reported the noise of the crash, echoing across the craggy peaks that had given the town its name.
Cully frowned. It was an odd time for Jim and Mabel to be going somewhere. The elderly couple rarely went out at night and usually went to bed after watching the local news at 10:00 p.m. For them to leave their house around two in the morning meant there had to be some kind of emergency.
He sat down on a small boulder and finally allowed himself to think beyond the stark details. Then, and only then, did he let the image of her into his mind.
This would break her heart.
It must have been twelve years since he'd last seen her, yet the very thought of her still jabbed at him like the sting of a scorpion.
She'd been barely nineteen back then. Tall and willowy, her dark hair flowing to her shoulders, her eyes blazing green fire, she'd faced him across the worn slats of the fence that bordered the Corbetts' house, hurling a tirade of words designed to hurt.
They'd hurt all right, though he'd never let her see that. It had been the toughest thing he'd ever had to do in his life but he'd let her go. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time. He'd spent the past twelve years or so trying to convince himself of that.
He'd died a little when she'd left and he'd died a little more when he'd heard she'd married. It was the last time Mabel had mentioned her name and he'd been too damn proud to ask after that.
Ginny should know about this. She'd want to know. If only he knew how to get in touch with her. Even Jim and Mabel didn't know where she was. Or so they'd said. Maybe they were just trying to save him from more heartache. In any case, it was too late now. The Corbetts were dead and he'd lost the last fragile connection to the woman he'd never been able to forget.
Excerpted from Official Duty by Doreen Roberts Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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