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Deputy Sheriff Royce McCall drew his Colt .45 and stepped behind the ice-crusted cottonwood tree. Mercy.
He didn't need this. It was too cold for a gunfight or even an arrest, but he might have to deal with both.
He glanced out at the hunting cabin and especially at the sole window that was facing his direction. He didn't see any movement, but he'd seen footprints in the snow that someone had tried to cover up. Those footprints came from the woods and led straight to the cabin.
Hiding footprints usually wasn't a good sign.
Of course, anyone inside was trespassing since the cabin was on McCall land, but he'd sure take a trespasser over an armed robber.
Normally, Royce wouldn't have been concerned with suspected felons this far out since the cabin wasn't near any main roads and a good twenty miles from the town of Mustang Ridge. But a cop from Amarillo P.D. had called earlier to warn him of a bank-robbery suspect who might be in the area. The guy could have found his way here with plans to use it as a hideout.
Without taking his attention off the cabin, Royce eased his phone from his coat pocket. There wasn't enough signal strength to make a call in this remote location, but he fired off a text to his brother, Sheriff Jake McCall, to let him know about the possible situation.
A situation Royce would likely end up handling alone.
It would take at least a half hour for his brother to respond to the text and get Royce some backup all the way out here. With the temperature already below freezing and with the wind and snow spitting at him, he didn't want to wait another minute much less an houreven if it meant he'd get a tongue-lashing from Jake.
Royce hoped that was all he got.
The Amarillo police had warned the fugitive was armed and dangerous.
Royce took that warning into account, pulled off the thick leather glove on his right hand so he'd have a better grip on the Colt, and he inched out from the cottonwood. Thankfully, there were other trees dotting the grounds, and he used them to make his way toward the cabin. He was nearly at the front when he heard something.
So the person who'd tried to hide those footprints was definitely still around.
Royce used one of the porch posts for cover, but he knew there was a lot more of him exposed than there was hidden. He waited and listened, but the only sounds were the ragged wind and his own heartbeat crashing in his ears.
He'd been a deputy of Mustang Ridge for eleven years and had faced down an armed man or two, but it never got easier. If it ever did, Royce figured that'd be the time to quit and devote all his time to running his portion of the family ranch. Danger should never feel normal.
With his bare hand going numb, it was now or never. Steering clear of the window, he reached over and tested the knob.
It was locked.
Royce didn't issue any warnings. He turned and gave the door a swift kick, and even though it stayed on the hinges, the lock gave way, and it flew open. Before it even hit the wall, he had his gun ready and aimed.
He took in the place with a sweeping glance. Not much to take in, though. There was a set of bunk beds on one side, a small kitchen on the other and an equally small bathroom in the center back. Since the privacy curtain in the bathroom was wide-open, he could see straight inside. No one was there unless the person was in the shower.
Keeping a firm grip on his gun, Royce inched closer, and he heard some movement again.
Yeah, it was definitely coming from the shower stall.
He took a deep breath and made his way into the cabin so he could get a look inside the bathroom.
"I'll shoot," someone called out.
Royce froze. It was a womannot the male robbery suspect he'd braced himself to face. However, it was hard to tell who the woman was with that quivery voice. Plus, he couldn't see much of her because the overhead lights weren't on, and the shower stall was hidden in the shadows.
Usually if threatened with violence, Royce would threaten right back. However, after one glance at her hand, the only part of her he could actually see, he realized a threat might not be the way to go.
Yeah, she was armed all right. She was holding a little Smith & Wesson, and it was possible she was even trying to aim the gun at him. But she was huddled in the tiny tiled shower, and her hand was shaking so hard she would have been lucky to hit him or anything else within ten feet of where she was trying to aim.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw the woman was wearing an unbuttoned coat over what appeared to be a nightgown. No hat, no gloves, and those flat house shoes definitely weren't cold-weather gear. She had to be freezing.
"You need to put down that gun." Royce tried to keep his voice level and calm. Hard to do with the adrenaline pumping through him and the cold blasting at his back. She didn't look like much of a threat, but she was armed.
"I won't let you kill me," she said in a broken whisper.
"Kill you?" Jeez, what was going on here? "No one's going to kill you, lady. I'm hoping you've got the same idea when it comes to me and that Smith & Wesson you got wobbling around there."
She looked up at him as if confused by that remark, and when she took a single step out of the shower, her eyes met his.
"Sophie?" And he cursed some more when he got a better look at her face. Yep, it was Sophie Conway, all right. A neighbor of sorts since her daddy, Eldon, owned the sprawling ranch next to his own family's land.
Sophie and Royce weren't exactly friends. All right, they were pretty much on each other's bad side, but Royce still didn't think she'd shoot him.
He hoped he was right about that.
"It's me, Royce," he said in case by some miracle Sophie didn't recognize him. He leaned in a little so she could have a better look at him, and he maneuvered himself into a position so he could disarm her.
"I know who you are," Sophie said a split second before she tried to scramble away from him.
He blocked her path, which wasn't hard to do since the rest of her was as wobbly as her aim. "Look, I'm not too happy about seeing you, either," Royce let her know, "but there's no reason for you to hold a grudge and point a gun at me."
Well, maybe there was a reason for the grudge part, but Royce wasn't getting into what'd happened between them four weeks ago.
"Are you drunk or something?" he asked.
She frowned, obviously not happy with that little conclusion. "What are you doing here?" She kept the gun pointed at him. "Did you come to kill me?"
Royce huffed. "No." He drew that out a few syllables. "I'm here because my family owns the cabin."
Sophie glanced around as if really seeing it for the first time. "This is your place?"
"Yeah." Again, Royce gave her a good dose of his smart-mouth tone, something his brother, Jake, had told him he was pretty good at doing. "I was out here looking for a couple of horses that broke fence, and maybe even an armed robber, so I decided to stop by and check on things. Now, care to tell me why you're here?"
Again, she looked around before her gaze came back to him, and while she was semi-distracted, Royce did something about that Smith & Wesson. He lunged at her and clamped his hands around her right wrist.
"No!" she shouted, and despite her shaky hands, she started fighting. "I need the gun."
Sophie kicked at him and tried to slug him with her left hand. She connected, sort of, her open hand slamming into his jaw.
And that's when Royce knew he'd had enough.
He knocked her hand against the sink, and her gun went flying into the sleeping part of the cabin at the same moment that she went flying at him. Even though he'd managed to disarm her, that didn't stop her from continuing the fight. She pushed and clawed at him, and he tossed his gun aside to stop it from being accidentally discharged in the fray.
Royce tried to subdue her without actually inflicting any bodily harm, but it was hard with Sophie fighting like a wildcat.
"Sophie, stop this now," he growled.
When she tried to knee him in the groin, Royce caught her, dragged her to the floor and flipped her onto her back. He pinned her body down with his.
Still, she didn't stop struggling.
She made one last attempt to toss him off her, and it was as if that attempt took all the fight from her. She went limp, and because he was so close to her face, just inches away, he saw the tears spring to her blue eyes.
Her eyes were still wide, and her chest was pumping for air, but at least she looked directly at him. "I won't let you kill me," she whispered.
Man, they were back to the crazy talk. "I'm guessing you've got a bad hangover from a New Year's party, because you're not making any sense."
The new year was already two days past. Still, maybe she'd been on a bender. After all, she'd been pretty darn drunk the last time he'd seen her a month ago.
Blowing out a long breath, Royce caught onto her face so he could examine her eyes and the rest of her. Too bad the rest of her was what really caught his attention.
The struggle had done a number on her long dark brown hair, and strands of it were now on her damp cheek and neck. On him, too. Royce didn't want to feel anything other than anger and maybe some confusion when he looked at Sophie. But he failed at that, too.
He felt that kick of attraction.
The same stupid attraction that had gotten the better part of him four weeks ago when he'd had way too much to drink and run into her at a party. Royce had been nursing a bad attitude because his three-year-old niece had been so sick. Heaven knows what Sophie had been nursing, but she'd been as drunk as he was.
He should have remembered that huge amounts of liquor, a surly attitude and an attractive woman just didn't mix.
Especially this woman.
Sophie was too rich for his blood. Not that he was poor. Nope, his family had money, too, but they were basically ranchers. Sophie had been city-raised, and ever since she'd moved back to Mustang Ridge about a year ago, she had always seemed to turn up her nose at anything and anyone in the small ranching town that he called home.
Well, until that party at the Outlaw Bar.
She was the last person he'd expected to find stinkin' drunk, and that was the only explanation for why he'd ended up at the Lone Star Motel with her. Though his memories were a little blurry when it came to the details. The only thing that was clear was there'd been some clothing removed and a little intimate touching before they'd passed out.
"Wait a minute," Royce said, thinking back to that fiasco at the Outlaw Bar and the Lone Star Motel. "Do you think I came here to kill you because you told me to take a hike after you woke up that morning?" He didn't wait for an answer to that asinine question. "Because, Sophie, I got over that fast.'"
Besides, they hadn't been in a relationship or anything. They'd only been together that once, and when Sophie woke up that morning, she'd pitched a hissy fit.
"I told you to take a hike," she repeated. Sophie's forehead bunched up as if she was trying to recall that or something.
"You said you were about to get engaged, and if I came near you again, you'd file charges against me," he reminded her. His jaw tightened, and that cleared his head and body of any shred of lingering attraction. "Trust me, I got the message. I've got no time for a high-maintenance daddy's girl who won't own up to the fact that she got drunk and nearly had a dirty one-night stand with a cowboy cop."
She swallowed hard, stared at him.
Maybe he'd hurt her feelings. Well, he didn't give a rat's behind about that, but Royce did move away from her so he could stand up and get his body off hers. He needed some answers, and then he could get her the heck out of his cabin and off his land.
He had enough memories of Sophie without making more.
"Why are you here?" he demanded. "And this time, don't give me a stupid answer about someone else or me trying to kill you." He tapped the badge clipped to his rawhide belt. "In case you've forgotten, I'm a deputy sheriff. I try to make a habit of not killing peopleeven ones who trespass on my land and point guns at me."
"I haven't forgotten who you are," Sophie murmured. She didn't say it with as much disdain as he'd expected, but there was a lot of unexpected stuff going on here today.
"Why. Are. You. Here?" he repeated.
Struggling and mumbling, she pushed herself to a sitting position. "Swear you aren't going to kill me."
"I swear," he snapped. He was about to chew her out for daring to ask him that, but Royce held back and just waited for her to continue.
"After I got the phone call I started running." Sophie pulled in a hard breath, and by hanging on to the wall, she managed to get to her feet. "And this cabin was the first place I reached. I thought maybe I could hide until my father answered my text message." She paused, rubbed her forehead. "My phone doesn't work up here on the ridge."
That last part was the first thing she'd said that made a lick of sense. Cell service here was spotty at best. But it didn't explain why she'd run to the cabin in the first place. "What happened?"
Her gaze came to his, and her eyes widened. "Oh, God. We have to get out of here," she said, her voice trembling again. Heck, Sophie started trembling again, too. Shaking from head to toe.
Royce stepped in front of her when she tried to go toward the door.
"We can't stay," she insisted. "If they find us together, they'll try to kill him."
Great. Now they were back to her talking out of her head. Royce leaned in and took a whiff of her breath. No smell of booze, so maybe she had been drugged. Something was certainly off here.
"Okay, I'll bite," he snarled. "Who's the him that they'll try to kill?"
She pushed him aside and tried to get to her feet again. "The baby they believe I'm having," she mumbled.
Royce stared at her. "Wait a minute." He shook his head. "Are you pregnant?"
Sophie didn't answer right away. "No. But I told them I was."
Royce would get to the them part later, but for now he wanted more on the fake pregnancy claim. "Why the heck would you tell someone you're pregnant when you're not?"
Sophie groaned, a sound that came from deep within her throat. "I didn't have a choice. I thought it'd keep us alive."
Royce was sure that he blinked. "Us?"
The tears came to her eyes again. "Us," she verified. "I told them the baby was yours."
He felt as if someone had slugged himtwice. "You what?" And that was the best he could manage. Royce just kept staring at her and probably would have continued if she hadn't latched on to him.
"I'm sorry, Royce. So sorry." Her breath caught in her throat. "But I just signed your death warrant."