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Busting a gang of drug dealers would be easier than going to the door to ask for Rachel Neesham's forgive-ness. Even so, Micah McLeod was back in Carbondale, Colorado, a scant hour's drive from Aspen. Last spring, he had left town to follow a trail of evidence, first to Aspen, then to Cabo San Lucas, all the while pretend-ing his undercover assignment here hadn't rocked his world.
In truth, he had run.
In truth, he wasn't sure he would have come back now if not for the threat he knew was hanging over Rachel's head. That thought shamed him. She had deserved far better from him than he had ever given her.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the wrought-iron gate in front of Rachel's big, two-story Victorian house and stepped onto the brick walkway that led to her front door. He squared his shoulders and climbed the two steps, each scrape of his boot against the wood echoing in his conscience.
The late-afternoon sun burned into his shoulder blades like a laser. The heavy oak door with its oval etched glass stood open, implying welcome. Once, he had been, and now he hoped she would give him the second chance he had failed to give her.
Her safety depended upon it, though he didn't have hard evidence to prove it. Yet.
A month ago, Rachel's old business partner, Angela London, had started leaving him messages from prison. Since she was a proven liar and a convicted felon, he'd figured she was simply working an angle, and he hadn't been in any hurry to see her. Now, he wished he had answered her summons the first day she had called. The case that had put Angela behind bars had taken one more unpredictable turn, and Rachel was once again caught in the crosshairs.
He frowned, staring into the house beyond the screen door. Given the threats she had received, Rachel should have the house locked up. As it was, anyone could walk right in.
The fragrance from brilliant flowers overflowing the huge terra-cotta pots framing the door assaulted his senses and ratcheted up his unease. Through the screen, the foyer was gilded in sunlight, his own shadow stretching down a hallway that he knew led to the kitchen.
The house always made him think of home, and he realized that was because of the woman and children who lived there. They represented everything he thought a home should be. Welcoming. Generous. Loving. It was like the one he'd grown up in. As an adult, he'd never had that for himself.
He rang the bell, the chimes echoing through the house. "I'll get it, Mom," a childish voice called, as light footsteps clattered down the stairs that framed one side of the entryway.
Sarah. The seven-year-old who looked so much like her mother. In the next instant she appeared, looking taller than she had last spring. Her honey-colored flyaway hair framed her face like a halo.
"Micah!" The little girl's face lit, and she unlatched the screen door and pushed it open, then skipped forward. "You came back. I kept telling Mom you would. She didn't believe me." She took him by the hand and led him into the house.
He should have turned tail and run while he could. Leaving last spring without even telling Rachel's children goodbye had been nearly as difficult as leaving Rachel. Behind him, the door slammed shut.
"Mom." Sarah pulled him toward the kitchen while his courage fled like a rat. "Look who's here."
A dish towel in her hands, Rachel appeared in the doorway, one of those long skirts she favored swirling around her calves. She looked wonderful, she looked too thin, tired. A half smile curved her lips. When her gaze lit on him, shock and outrage replaced the smile as she gasped.
"You." Her voice was just as cold as he had been afraid it would be.
She opened her mouthto order him out of the house, he was surethen composed her face into the expressionless mask she'd worn the day he had taken her in for questioning. "Sarah, sweetie, go play with your brother."
"Now." Rachel's tone was as firm as he'd ever heard it.
Last spring when they had first met, Micah hadn't thought her capable of being this stern. Then, she had been his prime suspect, odd as it seemed now, odd as it had been then. An antique dealer with wealthy patrons, providing cover for drug-smuggling and money-laundering, a business owned by two women who had been childhood friends. Neither were the sort of scum he was used to dealing with. He'd been drawn to Rachel's softness, sure it was a facade. He hadn't understood until it was too late what an essential part of her nature that gentleness was.
Sarah let go of his hand and gave him a long con-sidering look before climbing the stairs. Rachel stared at the floor while they both listened to the child's re-treating footsteps. The high cheekbones that gave Rachel's face an exotic cast were more pronounced than ever, undoubtedly because she was thinner than she had been last spring.
The month he'd spent ignoring Angela's calls had been a month too long. Oh, he'd told himself that he was too busy, but that would have been only half-truehe was always overworked. The simple truth was, Angela reminded him of Rachel, and thoughts of the awful things he had done to her in the name of his job kept him from sleeping at night. How could he ask for God's forgiveness when he had done the unforgivable?
He studied Rachel's bent head, hating that she looked so drawn, hating that his actions were undoubt-edly the cause. The instant Sarah's voice carried to them as she said something to her brother, Rachel lifted her head and advanced on him like a mama bear pro-tecting her young.
"You, " Her finger was pointed at him, carrying every accusation he believed he deserved. ", Turn yourself around and get out of my house right now. You're not welcome here."
"Rachel." This was every bit as bad as he had feared.
"Don't you "Rachel' me with your sweet voice and your lies."
"I came to, " Ask for your forgiveness. Except that he didn't deserve it. ", Explain." True, as far as it went.
"I heard all the explanation I needed at Angela's ar-raignment, Agent McLeod." Rachel swept past him, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, her light-brown hair gleaming in the sunlight as she headed for the front door. "You used me. You lied to me."
"You know that old saying about good intentions paving the road to hell." She held open the door and motioned for him to leave. "You abused my trust." She sucked in a shuddering breath, then stilled while she waited for him, the dish towel clenched so tightly that her knuckles were nearly as white as the cloth.
He slowly walked toward her, wishing she'd look at him. She didn't.
"I had no choice," he said. "The job came first."
"And it still does, doesn't it?" Her eyes finally met his.
Holding her gaze tore a hole inside him. Once he'd thought the luminous green of her eyes contained all the colors of life. Now they were as cloudy and dull as a ruined emerald.
He couldn't give her the outright denial he so wanted to. Striving for as much of the truth as he could manage in this instant, he said, "I heard about the threats and the demand for"
"Still checking up on me, Agent McLeod?"
"Angela called me after you went to see her." Micah stared at Rachel, echoes of his questioning of her last spring ringing through his head. Then he had still been half convinced Rachel was involved in Angela's criminal activities, and he had threatened her. I'll be your shadow, Rachel. You won't be able to sneeze without me knowing about it. That had been a lie, too, since he had left, figuring she'd be better off. And look at where that had gotten her.
Rachel's face paled even more. "I don't have the money."
"I know you don't."
"I don't know where it is."
"I know that, too."
"If you come back, it had better be with a warrant." Once again she motioned toward the door.
"You're not a suspect, Rachel." Reluctantly Micah moved toward it, sure he was about to lose his one chance. Though he was sure she wanted anything from him as much as she wanted a snake bite, he said, "I want to help."
"Oh, that's rich." She let go of the door, and it slapped closed. Once again she advanced on him, all righteous fury despite the quivering of her chin. "And just how are you going to do that? Are you ready to call on my customers and assure them that I'm not peddling drugs to their children?" She snapped her fingers. "I have it. The bank that called due my loan. It's a little hard to pay back money on a business that isn't in business any more. Can you fix that?" When he didn't answer she rushed on. "No, I didn't think so." Her eyes took on a shimmer. "Can you restore my reputation, Agent McLeod?"
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Save it for someone who cares." She turned away from him and again opened the door.
"I know I don't deserve your forgiveness."
"No, you don't," she agreed lifting her chin.
He stopped in front of her, lifted a hand. "Rachel, "
"Go," she whispered, her voice ragged. "Just go." Micah stepped onto the porch and she closed the screen door. He stood there, his back to the door, his fin-gertips in his jeans pockets. Finally he cleared his throat and said, "You have no idea how much I regret what I did to you." He raised his head but she was gone, both doors shutting him out. His heart heavy with loss, he turned back around, crossed the porch, and went down the walk.
Away from the woman he hadn't known he loved until after he had ruined her.