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U.S . Marshal Dylan Rooney was on a stakeout. Only in the hill country of Texas a stakeout didn't mean sitting in an unmarked sedan, drinking coffee and eating donuts. Nope. A Texas stakeout meant sitting on the back of a horse. And Dylan, who was a mediocre rider at best, had drawn the short straw in more ways than one. As a marshal, it wasn't uncommon for him to work away from his home base in California. It was, however, uncommon for him to be this bored. And this sore.
He much preferred traveling by plane, train or automobilethe faster and sleeker the mode of transportation, the betterthan relying on a four-legged best from hell.
While two other marshals from Dylan's five-member team, and several other marshals from various states, scoured the country for Jackson Kincaid, a prisoner who'd recently escaped transport in California, Dylan was on his third day in Nowhere, Texas, binoculars trained on the ranch owned by Jackson Kincaid's sister, Rachel. Besides the sheer boredom of it all, it wouldn't have been a bad assignment, but he hadn't counted on his damn horse having anxiety issues. Ginger, the horse he'd rented from an adjacent farm, wouldn't stop dancing in the red Texas dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust in Dylan's face.
It would be the height of stupidity for Kincaid to run here, especially given that it was where he was first taken into custody, but it still had to be covered. Dylan and his team would do whatever it took to apprehend Kincaid, even if it meant endless hours of watching Kincaid's ten-year-old nephew popping soda cans off fence posts with a BB gun.
The kid wasn't a half-bad shot, Dylan thought just as his mother came into view. Dylan sat up higher on the horse and pressed the binoculars tighter to his face, watching as she made the long hike up the western fence line and across the field to where her kid stood, BB gun at his side. Just as it had when he'd first seen her picturehell, every time he'd caught a glimpse of her in the past few daysDylan's pulse accelerated. Rachel Kincaid was nothing like the sophisticated women Dylan normally dated, but she was hands-down gorgeous. Willowy and tall, she had a dark Texas tan and dark eyes that clashed with the vibrant near white of her blond hair. She worked hardtoo hardand there was no doubt she loved her son, Peter, to distraction.
Too bad she had lousy taste in men, her brother and deceased husband included. Her husband's alcohol problem and subsequent drunk driving accident had left Rachel a widow. And her brother?
He'd taken everything his sister had sacrificed for him and flushed it down the toilet the minute he'd agreed to transport drugs across state lines.
Now Rachel was basically running the ranch by herself. She had some help, but not much.
Earlier, the woman had been conferring with her only ranch handrecords listed him as Josiah Pem-berly, age sixty-threedown at the natural spring. Though Dylan hadn't been able to hear their conversation, it had appeared pleasant, with both parties smiling a lot. Now that Rachel had reached her son, the conversation going on between them seemed far from pleasant. As Rachel spoke, the child stood motionless, his back to her. Frowning, Rachel lifted a hand as if to reach out to the boy, then stopped. Shaking her head, she wheeled around and strode quickly back to the ranch house, her entire posture stiff with frustration.
The woman was sexy as hell, Dylan thought, but it was obvious she had no control over her kid. And she'd obviously lost control of her brother, whom she'd essentially raised, a long time ago. Dylan just hoped her kid didn't end up taking the same path in life that his uncle had.
Dylan dropped the binoculars so they hung on their leather strap around his neck. Day three in the stakeout for Jackson Kincaid, and all Dylan had seen at the Kincaid ranch was one gorgeous yet overworked woman, her sullen brat, one elderly ranch hand and a bunch of weird-looking llamas. At least, he figured they were llamas. Texas was getting too froufrou. Whatever had happened to sheep and cattle ranching?
The next fifteen minutes passed in a drone of boredom. The ranch hand kept mending the fence. The kid continued popping soda cans off fence posts. Dylan gulped down water until the wind picked up, snapping more dust into his eyes and sending a tumble-weed straight at his horse.
"Whoa," he murmured, tightening his grip on the reins with one hand and wrapping his other hand in Ginger's mane. The mare shied, as expected, but Dylan managed to hang on and focused on maintaining his seat and keeping his feet in the stirrups. He fought for control, working to recall the instructions his camp counselor had taught him the year the state had sent him to summer camp in the boonies.
"Keep your seat. Don't yank on the reins. Dig your heels down''
And then he heard a shriek wend its way upward from the valley below.
The kid? The mother? Dylan wrapped the reins around his fist to control the horse and brought the binoculars back to his eyes. The kid had dropped his BB gun and was running toward the house. Dylan panned the lenses over to the house but didn't see the porch door swing open. In the few days that he'd been spying on the Kincaid Ranch, Rachel had always come running whenever the kid wanted her. Now? Nothing. Had something happened to her?
The single word caught on the edge of the wind and whipped up the ridge to Dylan. Desperation filled the boy's single word.
Dylan loosened his grip on the reins and squeezed with his knees, yelling, "Yiya!"
Ginger responded by leaping forward. Immediately she settled into a gallop and headed down the ridge to the valley. The ranch house was only about a quarter mile away as the crow flies, but the trail down the ridge zigzagged like a pinball machine. Still, even with all the switchbacks, he'd probably be able to reach the kid in time to help.
Assuming he didn't get thrown and break his neck first, of course.
Rachel Kincaid let her long hair drip water down her back. The cold shower had felt good and had taken the biting edge off her nerves. With their higher elevation, the Texas heat usually stayed away from the ranch, but not this summer. This summer the heat got to her. Or maybe it was that Peter kept getting to her.
God, she loved her son, but he'd never been an easy kid. Often affectionate and sweet and funny but also hyperactive. Defiant. Impulsive.
Six months ago he'd been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. At the time, she'd been relieved to have an explanation for his moodiness that didn't come with being labeled a failure of a parent. But she'd also been overwhelmed and uncertain of her ability to do right by her son. After doing tons of research on the subject, she'd reluctantly agreed to get him on medicine, something that had seemed to help right away. Putting Peter on a schedule that still provided him lots of downtime had helped even more. By the time the school year had ended, he'd been doing so much better and their relationship had become downright rosy.
Now, however, the prolonged time they'd been spending together over summer vacation was beginning to take its toll. So was the fact that Peter missed his uncle Jax; even if he didn't know the real reason Jax had left last year, he was confused by Jax's failure to visit or call. Peter missed him, and he was bored with just her and Josiah for company. And Rachel? She missed her brother, too. Missed him terribly. She was also tired from working the ranch. From working Jax's appeal. From her frequent battles with Peter. It made her feel guilty, but she wanted summer to be over. Wanted the heat gone. Wanted Peter back in school where he could sass his teachers for part of the day instead of her.
She stepped into a worn but clean pair of Levi's jeans and pulled a tank over her still-dripping hair, knowing it wasn't fair to compare Peter to what her brother, Jax, had been like at ten but doing it, anyway. Jax had been easy. Then again, Jax hadn't had ADHD. And, when Jax had just turned ten, their parents were still alive and she was in her first year in college; she probably wouldn't have noticed if Jax had given her parents attitude, anyway. Afterward, with their parents gone before he turned eleven, Jax had been so grief-stricken it had taken months before he'd smiled again, let alone thrown attitude.
Peter, on the other hand, had been offering up enough sass to fill a silo. The way he'd turned his back on her earlier when she asked him to stop shooting the pellet gun and fill up the alpacas' water trough had just about driven her out of her skin. She'd had to walk away before she lost it and started yelling at him.
She grabbed her boots but stopped when she heard something.
Peter calling her. The tenor of his high-pitched voice came through the open bedroom window, urgent and scared.
Her heart leaped into her throat. Her baby needed her.
She didn't bother with the boots, and instead rushed down the stairs and burst out onto the porch, looking for her son.
There, racing from the western fence line where she'd left him only fifteen minutes ago, came Peter. And coming toward him from the opposite direction, in a cloud of red dust, rode a stranger on a galloping chestnut quarter horse.
"Peter!" she screamed, and ran to him. She stumbled as the rocks on the drive bit into her feet but kept on going.
"Mom, you've gotta help!" Peter cried out when she reached him. He wrapped his arms around her and sobbed into her shoulder.
Heart pounding, Rachel held her son tight and faced the rider who brought his horse to an ungainly stop next to them. He seemed about her age, or maybe just a few years oldermaybe early thirties. Wide shoulders, legs long against the barrel of the horse. Blue jeans, a plaid snap-front long-sleeved shirt rolled to the elbows and his Stetson said cowboy, yet his un-scuffed boots and the clean felt of his hat screamed of falsehood.
Wait. She knew his horse: Ginger. A horse from her neighbor Aaron Jacobson's herd. The same neighbor harassing her about the fence line. Hell. Today of all days she didn't need to deal with a stupid land dispute. And she didn't need some city slicker to give her a hard time about the spring.
"I don't know who you are or why Aaron sent you to hassle my kid," she snapped out at the stranger, "but I swear to God, if you don't get off my property, I'll call the sheriff on you. You and Aaron leave my kid alone," she nearly growled, holding a sobbing Peter even tighter. "Whatever issues that man has with the property line can be handled in courtnot by intimidating a child."
The man slid off Ginger in an awkward motion and stepped forward, palms held upward in a universal gesture of peace. He came closer and she stood shaking, watching his every step, until he stopped a few feet in front of her. His deep blue eyes were steady and without malice. Didn't matter. He was tallat least six foot twoand he towered over her and Peter; his wide shoulders and military posture screamed intimidation.
But she was a mother. She wouldn't let him intimidate her. Not when her kid was crying against her shoulder.
"My name's Dylan, ma'am," the man said. "Dylan Rooney. And I'm not here about your neighbor. I was riding the ridge, uh, bird-watching, and I saw the kid playing with his BB gun. Next thing I knew I heard him screaming and running to the house. I figured something had happened and came down the hill to help. Kid" he directed his statement to Peter, who'd raised his tear-streaked face away from her shoulder "are you hurt?"
Peter pulled away from Rachel and swiped futilely at the tears that kept streaming down his face. "No, it's not me. It's it's " Anguish froze his expression, his mouth gaping and open, shutting off whatever he'd been about to say.
Rachel reached for him, but Peter took another step away from her. The distance, a mere two inches, ripped yet another hole in Rachel's heart. He'd needed herand then he hadn't. She couldn't help thinking of all the family she'd losther parents and even her brother in a way. She swallowed the lump of emotional pain down and said, "I heard you ask for my help, Peter. What's wrong?"
The manDylancame forward and placed a solid hand on Peter's shoulder. Somehow the masculine grip held Peter together in a way Rachel's soft hold hadn't, because Peter took a shaky breath and the tears stopped flowing.
"It's Josiah "
Josiah. Her ranch hand. And friend. A sensation like a cold hand slid up her back. Twenty minutes ago she'd checked in on him as he repaired the fence on the property line she shared with Aaron Jacobson. Had Aaron gone too far this time? Was Aaron causing Josiah trouble?
Her neighbor had been a real pain in the neck ever since he discovered a natural spring right on her side of the fence line a couple of years ago. He'd been digging around the courthouse records, trying to prove the spring was actually on his own land. She'd been too preoccupied with running the ranch, keeping Peter in line and working on the appeal process for her brother to deal with Aaron's constant haranguing, but she'd finally referred him to Julia Rickel, her friend and lawyer, who'd threatened lawsuits and police action and whatnot if Aaron didn't back off. Aaron had made it clear he hadn't liked what he considered to be Julia's threats.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the stranger beat her to the question she was about to ask.
"Kid," Dylan said, "what happened? Where's Josiah?"
Peter hitched a breath and pointed back to the fence line. "He's over there. B-b-but it's too late. We're too late."
The cold hand on Rachel's back now gripped her throat. No.
"Too late for what, Peter?" she whispered. "Too late to help. Josiah's dead."