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Mia Cooper stood on her porch surveying the quiet landscape of Dawson, Oklahoma. Leaves were turning, the grass had long since dried from lack of rain, and the neighborhood kids had gone back to school weeks ago. She felt alone in the world.
It shouldn't bother her. She knew how to handle loneliness. Even as a Cooper, surrounded by family, she had sometimes felt alone. She also knew how to adjust. She'd been told recently that her strongest skills were her ability to readjust or reinvent herself.
And her biggest detriment.
She just had to decide who she would be now that she was back in Dawson, at her mom's insistence. Okay, she admitted she had been easy to convince. She'd been ready to come home. Her apartment in Tulsa had been too quiet, too private, even for her.
She adjusted the sling that kept her right arm close to her chest, swallowed another gulp of water and jogged down the steps. She could run. She could take to the streets of Dawson, smile and wave to neighbors who might be out. She could pretend that everything would be okay.
But Butch Walker was dead.
That would never change. Butch's wife, Tina, would raise two children alone. Mia would forever remember his face as he went down. She would always live with shooting too late, with not being able to save him.
Her arm might ache. The possibility of not being able to go back to work hurt. But Butch gonethat hurt worse. She could take the pain of running.
She hit the pavement, taking it slow, breathing deep and easy as she lengthened her strides. She swallowed past the tightness in her throat and ignored the pain in her arm and shoulder.
Don't ignore the pain, her doctor had warned her after surgery a month ago. How could she ignore it? It was a constant reminder.
A car came up behind her, and she stepped to the side of the road. Her heart jumped a few paces ahead as she glanced back to make sure it was someone she knew. In Dawson it was rare to see a stranger. Even people you didn't know well weren't considered strangersthey were just people you should get to know better.
Her brother, Jackson, pulled alongside her, the truck window sliding down. She kept running. The truck idled along next to her.
"Jogging, really?" He leaned a little, glanced at the empty country road ahead of them and then looked her way again.
"Yeah, I needed to get out. Alone." She smiled, but it took effort.
"Right. You've never liked too many people in your business. But you have family. Mom has been trying to call you."
She slowed to a fast walk. "I'll call her."
"Today. You can't outrun this."
The big brother in his voice shook her. She remembered a time when she'd been the older sister taking care of her biological siblings, making sure they ate, got dressed each day, survived. Her name then had been Mia Jimenez. And then her mother had died and she'd become the little sister, with people taking care of her. Mia Cooper. Reinvented at age seven.
She and her siblings had been separated.
"Mia, stop running."
"I'll call her." She stopped and closed her eyes, his words sinking in. She'd always been running. Always running from life, from the past, from pain.
The truck stopped next to her. "Mia, you're strong. You're going to survive this."
"I know." She blinked quickly, surprised by the sting of tears. She should have stayed in Tulsa. But as much as her family suffocated her at times, she needed them. Her mom had brought her home on Monday.
"Want a ride home?"
She shook her head and somehow looked at him, smiling as if everything was fine. "No, I can make it."
"Okay, but be safe."
He smiled, nodded and shifted to drive away. Mia stood on the side of the road in a world with nothing but fields, trees and the occasional cluster of grazing cattle. A light wind blew, the way wind blew in Oklahoma, and the air smelled of drying grass and blacktop.
Jackson's truck turned a short distance ahead, but his words had opened the wound. Tears blurred her vision and her throat burned. She kept jogging. She kept pushing.
She brushed at the tears that continued to flow. It ached. It ached every minute of every day. Even in her dreams it hurt. She stopped running and looked up at the clear blue sky, at birds flying overhead.
"It hurts!" she yelled as loudly as she could. And then more quietly: "Make it stop. Make it all go away."
There was no answer. Of course there wasn't. God had stopped listening. For some reason He had ignored her when she pleaded for help, holding her hand on Butch's chest, trying to stop the flow of blood, crying as she told him to hold on.
She closed her eyes and slowly sank to her knees in the grass on the shoulder of the road, not caring who came by, what people said about her. It didn't matter. Why should it matter when she hadn't been able to save her partner, her friend's life?
A car pulled up behind her. She didn't turn. She didn't want to know who had found her like this.
A door shut. Footsteps crunched on the gravel shoulder of the road. She wiped a hand across her face and looked up at the person now standing in front of her, blocking the sun, leaving his face in shadows. He smiled a little but his dark gray eyes mirrored her sorrow. He held out a hand.
"It gets easier." His voice was gruff but soft.
"Does it?" She didn't think it would. Today it felt as if it would always hurt like this.
She took his hand.
"Yeah, it does. Is this your first cry?"
She nodded and the tears started again. His hand clasped her left hand. She stood and he pulled her close in an awkward embrace. His hand patted her back and then he stepped away, cleared his throat and looked past her.
"Let me give you a ride home."
She noticed then that he was in his uniform. He'd been a county deputy for ten years. He'd been the second officer on the scene the night his wife died in a car accident.
"Thanks." She walked back to his car. He opened the passenger-side door for her. Before getting in, she stared up at him, at a face she knew so well. She knew his gray eyes, the way his mouth was strong but turned often in an easy smile. She also knew his pain. "It feels like it might hurt forever."
They made the trip back to Mia's in silence. Slade McKennon glanced Mia's way from time to time, but he didn't push her to talk. Their situations were different, but he knew how hard it was to talk when the grief hit, when your throat felt so tight it hurt to take a breath. He knew how hard it was to make sense of it all.
He knew how angry you could get and how every time you opened your mouth, you wanted to yell at God or cry until you couldn't cry any more.
He pulled into her driveway and they sat there a long time, just sitting, staring at her garage in front of them. Finally, she turned to face him, her eyes still watery, rimmed with red from crying. Her dark brown hair framed her face, her normally dark skin looked a shade or two paler.
Tall and slim, athletic, she'd always been an over-achiever, the girl who thought she could do it all. And did. She'd been a star basketball player. She'd ridden barrels all the way to nationals, three times. She'd won the whole thing once.
Now she looked as broken as a person could get, but she still had fighter written all over her.
"Remember when Vicki used to tell you to just go ahead and cry?" He smiled as he remembered his wife, her best friend. That was what time did for a personit made the memories easier, made smiling easier.
"Yeah, she used to do that. When I broke my ankle, sprained my wrist, had a concussion. Cry, she'd say." She rubbed her hand over her face. "But it didn't make sense to cry over it. Pain is an emotion."
Instead of crying, Mia would just get mad. A defense mechanism he guessed from her tough childhood, pre-Coopers. She reached for the door of his patrol car. He knew he wouldn't get much further with her, but he had to try.
"Mia, she would tell you to have faith."
"Don't." She opened the door and looked back at him, one foot on the paved driveway. "Don't give me the easy answers, the platitudes. It doesn't help. I can pray. I can have faith. I can believe in God to do all things. But there is one thing that won't happen."
She closed her eyes and the tense lines of her face eased. She reached across the car for his hand and held it tight. "I know you do."
"But I promise you, those words are more than platitudes. It doesn't feel like it right now, but it is going to get easier."
"Come in for a cup of coffee?"
Okay, she wanted to change the subject. He radioed in that he'd be out of his car but available on his cell phone. Dispatch responded and he pulled the keys out of the ignition. Yeah, he did that every single time.
Mia saw the keys go in his pocket and she laughed. With watery eyes and red streaks where tears had made trails down her cheeks, she laughed. He smiled and shrugged, he'd take the humiliation if it made her feel better.
"A guy only makes that mistake once." He stepped out of his car.
"You know that Gage and Dylan did that to you."
"Yeah, I know."
Her brothers had hidden his patrol car. He'd been a deputy for two months and those two brothers of hers had spotted his car at the Convenience Counts convenience store, keys in the ignition. He'd been inside grabbing a corn dog and when he walked out, his car was gone. After fifteen minutes of searching on foot, he'd had to radio it in to dispatch. A BOLO, "be on the lookout," for a police car.
Reese Cooper had come along a short time later and told Slade his car was parked at the rodeo grounds. Slade and Reese found the car just as three patrol cars zoomed in.
For several years the other deputies had called him BOLO. They still liked to bring it up from time to time.
Mia met him on the sidewalk, her smile still in evidence.
"Nighttime is the worst," she admitted as she walked up the steps to her front porch.
"I know." He had to tell her why he'd come looking for her. And he wasn't looking forward to it.
"I don't drink coffee," she said as she unlocked the door to her house.
He followed her through the living room to the kitchen. He hadn't been inside her house before today. He didn't know why. He guessed because Vicki and Mia had been best friends. But he and Mia had been friends, too. They'd grown up together. They'd trailered to rodeos together, a bunch of kids sleeping in the backs of trucks and trailers during those two-day events.
After Vicki's death, he'd been wrapped up in making his life work, in being a dad to his infant son, and Mia had taken a job with a DEA drug task force that required undercover work.
He had to tell her why he was here.
In the kitchen she bent to pull a coffeemaker out of the cabinet. He reached to help her. She smiled a little and backed up, letting him put it on the counter.
"What are they saying about your arm?"
She ran the coffeemaker under warm water and then filled it with cold water. He plugged in the machine and stepped back as she did a decent job, left-handed, of pouring water into the reservoir and then fitting a filter into the holder.
"Well, it's held together with a plate and screws. They did what they could for the damaged nerves." She looked down at her splinted wrist and shrugged. "I can start physical therapy pretty soon."
"What about your job?" He measured coffee into the filter and hit the power button. "Will you stay with the DEA?"
She walked away, to the window that overlooked her small yard and the two acres of field. He'd always wondered why she chose this place. She had her own land. Each of the Cooper kids had their own hundred acres.
"I don't know about my job, Slade. The doctors say my right hand will suffer weakness because of the nerve damage." She sighed and didn't turn to face him. "I don't know who I am without that job."
"You're still Mia Cooper."
He moved a few steps and almost, almost put his hand on her shoulder, but he couldn't. She was a friend.
She'd been Vicki's friend. She turned, smiling a sad smile.
"Slade, that's the problem. Who is Mia Cooper? For the last few years I've been everyone but the person I thought I was. I've had to pretend to be someone I never wanted to be. I've had to forget myself."
He watched the emotions play across her face, and when she seemed to be looking for herself, she was still Mia. She was still the little sister of Reese, Travis, Jackson, the list went on and on. They were all friends of his. She'd been the kid sister who didn't want to stay at home with the girls. She'd wanted to do the overnight trail rides with the guys. She'd beaten them at basketball, caught bigger fish, ridden harder, played longer.
"You're still Mia. You're stronger than anyone I know. You'll find yourself."
"Stronger than you?" She smiled then, a real smile, a flash of white in a suntanned face. "I don't think so. How's Caleb?"
"He's five now and going to preschool a few days a week. He's a chip off the old block."
"I'll bet he is. I haven't seen him in so long."
"Stop by sometime." He let the words slip out, easy because she was a friend.
"Yeah, I will."
"You've said that before. It would be good for him to know you."
"I want to know him, too."
"I have to go pretty soon." He continued to watch her, slim shoulders straight. She nodded but didn't turn around.
"I'm good." She answered the question he hadn't yet asked.
"No, you aren't. But I'll let you pretend you are."
Now he had to tell her the real reason he'd come looking for her. "Mia, Nolan Jacobs was released from jail last night."
She stood there, not saying a word.
"I heard you." She faced him, anger flashing in her dark eyes. "What does that mean? He bonded out?"
"I guess so. And the charges have been reduced."
"No. Butch and I covered all our bases. We spent six months living that filthy life, away from our families, pretending to be people we weren't. But he had a way out the whole time. That's how he made us, through an inside source."
"They aren't going to drop this. They won't let you guys down that way."