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A mist lay on the lagoon below Blue Mountain the September morning Ethan Red Wolf faced a past he'd buried years ago.
Won't be hi and bye this time, Meggie.
No, he'd have to make an elaborate report of the wounded eagle huddling against the boulder. Which meant talking to her.
"Easy," he soothed when the raptor squirmed weakly on the shoreline rocks. Slipping his Nikon camera into his backpack, he crouched for closer inspection—and mentally cursed.
The bird's tail feathers had been plucked like unwanted hairs.
Thankfully, the cool, rainy temperatures during the past two days had kept the scent down and coyotes and wolves at bay—a cleanup process as old as the mountain above him.
He snorted softly. Wasn't this just bloody typical? Seemed after all these years, America's heritage symbol—his heritage symbol—would be the catalyst bringing him eye to eye with Sweet Creek's police chief.
Gently he lifted the bird. "It's gonna be okay, little lady," he murmured. Rising, he cradled the eagle against his chest before starting over the rocks toward his house on the other side of the diminutive lake shrouded in the foggy dawn.
Ah, Meggie, he thought. We're about to have a real conversation. A first since she'd returned to Montana from the west coast six years ago.
Hell, if he were honest with himself, this would the first time they exchanged more than ten words in nineteen years.
Sure, they had nodded to each other on the street, said "Hi" in passing, had even traded the old, "How's it going?" "Oh, fine. You?" "Good, good…" when he used to work as her brother's foreman on the Flying Bar T Ranch.
But aconversation? An honest-to-God, intelligent discourse between two people?
Every time they were within ten feet of each other, one or the other zipped to an exit at the first chance. Him, because of her marriage—and too many other reasons he'd locked away over the years. Her…well, her reason had been the one he'd never forgotten. The one she had decided the night of their prom. You're not what I want in a man, after all.
Today, another female would alter fate. He looked down at the eagle with her shot-up wing and thigh and shook his head. Little lady…if you only knew what your sacrifice is about to set in motion.
Because he sure as hell wasn't talking to Gilby Pierce, Meggie's second-in-command. Nope, Ethan intended to speak to the head gal herself—if for no other reason than to establish some prolonged face time.
He walked through the thick timber and across a minimeadow where two hours ago his camera lens had caught the chipmunk chewing a seed on the rotted log. At the crest of a small knoll, he appraised the little homestead his grandfather Davis O'Conner had built a half century before. Protected by a grove of pine, aspen and birch, rich in autumn splendor, the renovated house sat two hundred yards from the lagoon.
His home now. His spot on the map.
He wondered if in the past year—since he'd taken residency on this side of the hill a quarter mile from where Meggie lived with her sixteen-year-old son— had she ever looked down onto his home as he did now?
Don't be a fool, Ethan. She's a different woman than she was at eighteen. All brass and guts now.
She needed to be, as chief of police.
The Meggie he'd kissed as a teenager no longer existed. This Meggie wouldn't spare one frivolous second mooning over some bygone childhood love.
That much he'd witnessed in the past six years after Mayor Hudson Leland and the town council hired her to run Sweet Creek's police department. Hell, not long ago, she'd practiced at the former rifle range—shot bull's-eyes, in fact—an eighth of a mile from Ethan's house. A range on the property left to him by his late grandfather that Ethan had bulldozed last June to make room for the therapeutic riding center he wanted to establish. Which, of course, didn't sit well with the locals, including the mayor and his cronies—in particular Jock Ralston.
Lifting his head, Ethan sought out the mammoth boulder sitting like a rough-edged beacon across the lake. The boulder where he'd found the raptor.
Where, under a stadium of stars, eighteen-year-old Meggie McKee had once said she would love him forever.
Ethan grunted. Right. And there went a lake of water under that bridge.
Firmly cradling the bird in his arms, he walked down the hill toward the house in the trees.
A thicket of yellow aspen on the outskirts of town encircled Sweet Creek's animal clinic. Turning into its lane, Ethan squinted as the dawn light glanced off the windshield of the doctor's van in front of the tomato-red barn.
Three minutes later, after carrying the injured eagle into the reception area, he and his longtime friend and town veterinarian, Kell Tanner, considered the bird's wounds on an examination table.
"Can you save her, Doc?" Ethan wanted to know.
"It'll be touch-and-go. Only blessing is she has youth on her side." He removed the tea towels Ethan had bound around the wings. Before bringing the bird in, he'd dribbled water into its beak with an eyedropper until its glassy yellow eyes blinked open, the nictitating membranes gliding slowly across the corneas, back to front. At that point, Ethan had breathed a sigh of hope.
Gently the veterinarian carefully probed the bird's torn thigh and shattered wing. "Damn shame."
And then some. "Do your best, Doc. She deserves it."
Kell nodded. "Come back in a couple hours. She'll be in recovery then."
"Thanks." Ethan headed for the door.
"You realize they're not going to like what you're thinking here," Kell said over his shoulder. "That one of their gun buddies might be a poacher."
They. The law or the town council? Ethan shrugged. "Guess I'll take the chance."
Outside, mellow morning sunshine warmed his face as he looked toward the trees across the road separating the clinic from the town proper where two blocks away he'd noticed her pickup at the police station's curb. Still the early riser, Meggie?
He pulled his ball cap from a hip pocket, settled it on his head.
Time to get the show on the road.
Resolute, he climbed into his pickup and pulled out of the clinic's graveled parking lot. In the two minutes it took to get to the station, he thought about how she would react to his information, facts that would likely separate them further if he implicated the gun club. Or her son. Well, if that was how it played out he'd take the chance anyway. This was for the raptor.
Besides, Meggie lived her own life now—though he'd observed her hire on as chief, watched her son, Beau, grow from a kid with freckles to a teenager with a bad-boy attitude.
Like you were at that age.
And he had watched Meggie date other men, even get serious about one four years ago.
Not that there hadn't been women in Ethan's life.
He'd had his share and then some. Except none had ever measured up to dark-haired, blue-eyed, long-legged Chief Meggie.
Meg. That's the name she used these days. Meg. Hard and headstrong. Huh. Well, she'd always be Meggie to him. Soft and sweet natured. The girl he remembered.
Heart pounding, he parked in front of the rectangular wooden structure that had been the police station for nearly two and half decades. Moments later he pulled open its door to walk into a room that took up most of the front length of the building. LED day lighting presented the brightness of July at noon.
She stood to the right, viewing a county map tacked to the wall with her second-in-command Gilby Pierce and dispatcher/secretary Sally Dunn. All three turned, pinning Ethan like the map they'd been scrutinizing.
Meggie's eyes went wide, then she caught herself, and a smile Ethan knew was meant for the sake of her companions curved her mouth before she stepped forward.
For five long seconds he couldn't inhale. Meggie. "Mr. Red Wolf."
Mr. Red Wolf. Fine. She wanted to playact, he'd give her one hell of a performance. "Chief McKee."
Blue uniform crisp, gun slung on her belt, she was all cop in her approach. "Something we can do for you?"
He looked into those beguiling blue eyes. Well now, Meggie-girl. You're finally looking at me for longer than sixty seconds. How's it feel?
Hell. He had no delusion that she saw him; it was the probable complaint he'd come about that held her interest. "There is. An eagle's been shot on my property, and I'm wondering if it wasn't for possible profit."
Those fine, black brows he had traced with his mouth twenty years before arced. "Care to explain?"
"Tail and wing feathers missing. Bird's over at Kell's getting its thigh sewn up and its wing bones splinted."
She studied him for a moment, assessing his words while he assessed her. Her dark chocolate hair, worn in a neat bob, was shorter than his by several inches. She wore no lipstick, very little rouge, and her gaze was direct in a way it hadn't been when she was a girl. Regret coursed through him at the sight of the hair-fine lines caging those same eyes. She'd had her share of heart-ache, he surmised. Hell, maybe she still mourned for her ex—the renowned Dr. Doug Sutcliffe—these six years. Ethan shoved away the notion. Meggie thinking about a man bothered him for reasons he did not want to investigate, especially when she was no longer his. Never had been, Ethan.
"Why don't you step into my office?" Turning, she led him down a short hallway to a cluttered room with a long wooden desk supporting a computer. Several filing cabinets filled the right wall while the left held another county map, a half-dozen Wanted posters, and a corner window with—irony of ironies—a view of Blue Mountain.
Daily those lake-blue eyes saw the terrain where he lived.
Where she lived a shout away.
Did that ever cross her mind? "Have a seat." All business, she shut the door behind them.
Ethan took the only chair free of file folders. Mere feet from his knees, she hiked a slim hip on her desk and crossed her arms. "Where'd you find the bird?"
"Across the water from my place. On the shore," he added and observed her pinpoint the area in her mind, remembering spots where, as high school sweethearts, they had done their share of kissing.
"Anyone been using the rifle range without your knowledge?" she asked.
"The range doesn't exist anymore, as you know." After the town's rental lease had expired last spring, he'd demolished the target hill and shooting stalls, removed the obstacle course used for the annual Mounted Shoot. He had wanted no part remaining of the thirty-year-old range his grandfather founded. In its place Ethan was creating a healing-horse retreat where troubled kids could find a little peace. Kids like he'd once been.
But his plans were not her affair. "I'm well aware the range is gone," Meggie replied. "However, that doesn't mean people won't try to use those twenty acres." A corner of her mouth lifted. "Old habits die hard. I was wondering if some folks still consider the field open for target practice."
"I've posted No Trespassing signs." He shifted his booted foot several inches from her police-issued shoe. "But you're right. It doesn't rule out the mayor's gun cronies."
Her gaze didn't waver. "What are you saying, Ethan?" An air balloon's torch whooshed through him. The last time his name crossed her lips… Hell, he couldn't recall. "I'm saying I've seen hunters on Blue Mountain." And one of them was your son.
She slipped off the desk, walked around to her chair. "Who?" she asked, her fingers easy on the computer's keyboard. All police business now.
Her head swung around. "With rifles?"
"I need names, Ethan."