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Marshal Dallas Walker studied the three men milling around in front of the Maverick Springs church. All were dressed in nondescript black suits, but judging from the bulges beneath their coats, they were carrying weapons.
So, what were armed guests doing at a wedding?
Just thinking those two words put a knot in his gut, and seeing those armed men only made the knot even tighter.
Something wasn't right hereon many levels.
Dallas eased his hand over the Glock .22 in his holster and walked up the limestone path that led to the front door. As expected, he got the attention of all three men. They snapped toward him, and one whispered something into the communicator that he had strapped to his wrist.
The biggest one, a bald guy with linebacker-size shoulders, stepped forward to block Dallas's way. "Are you a guest of the bride or groom?" he asked, none too friendly.
Dallas debated his answer for a split second and decided to go with what would get him inside the church the fastest and with the least amount of trouble.
If that was possible.
He tapped his badge, which was clipped to his belt. "I'm Marshal Dallas Walker. Move or I'll move you." Yeah, it wasn't very friendly, either, but at least he'd given them an option. Of sorts. One way or the other, they were moving.
The man's jaw turned to iron, and he glanced at the one with the communicator. That one lifted his wrist and was about to say something into the device, probably something that would cause an ugly confrontation with these goons and the groom. But the squeaky sound and movement behind them had them all reaching for their weapons.
The sound was coming from a window being lifted in the century-old church. And there she was. Joelle.
She looked out at him from behind the mesh window screen. No wedding dress, but she was wearing a white robe, and the April breeze took a swipe at the dark blond hair she had piled on her head. She gave all of them a glare.
"What are you doing here?" she snapped.
"Seeing you," Dallas snapped right back.
And for good measure, he returned the glare, too. It wasn't hard to do. Once, when he was seventeen and stupid, he'd been in love with Joelle Tate, but it sure wasn't love he was feeling right now.
Far from it.
He wanted to wring her neck.
"We have to talk," Dallas insisted, and he elbowed his way through the trio of guards and hurried up the church steps.
He was on borrowed time now because it wouldn't be long before the groom, Owen Palmer, found out he was there, and Owen would not be a happy buckaroo about Dallas's arrival.
Get in line.
A lot of people wouldn't be happy about this little visit, but by God, he was not going to let Joelle get away with this.
Since his foster father, Kirby Granger, had brought Dallas and his brothers to this church plenty of times, Dallas knew the way through the mazelike corridors to the side room where Joelle was. He found her, all right. Waiting for him in the doorway.
And she was still glaring.
"Owen and I are getting married in an hour," Joelle informed him.
That sentence sounded as unright to him as the armed guards and the big fat diamond ring on her finger, but the wedding wasn't the reason for his visit. Nope. If Jo-elle had fallen in love with a weasel like Owen, then they deserved each other. Dallas had written her out of his life ages ago.
He took her by the arm and moved her back into the room. "We'll talk fast."
That definitely didn't help her glare. "Owen will be here soon."
"Then we'll talk faster:"
There were two women in the room, both wearing flowing yellow dresses, and he figured they were Joelle's friends from Austin, where she'd lived for the past four years or so. One of them was holding a big puffy wad of silk and lace.
The wedding dress, no doubt.
Dallas turned to the women and hitched his thumb to the door. "I need to talk to Joelle alone." And yeah, he added some attitude to that request because he wasn't taking no for an answer.
The now wide-eyed women looked at Joelle, obviously waiting to see if it was safe for them to leave. With her glare still fastened on Dallas, she nodded.
"We'll only be a minute," Joelle explained, making it sound like a threat. To him.
The woman holding the dress eased it onto a chair as if the darn thing might break in half, and she crept out with her friend. The moment the pair was out of the room, Dallas shut the door and locked it.
"I won't let you do this," Dallas began.
And Joelle knew what he meant. This had nothing to do with the wedding to a weasel. That was just an added irritation and even more of one because he shouldn't have cared a pig's hair if she was getting married.
But hell's Texas bells, she was marrying Owen.
Joelle threw off his grip and huffed. "You shouldn't have come."
"You didn't give me much of a choice. You didn't return my calls, and your hoity-toity sounding assistant said you were leaving on a monthlong honeymoon."
Her spicy brown eyes narrowed to the point that he was surprised she could even see him. "I didn't return your calls because there's nothing I can discuss with you."
"Wrong answer, try again," Dallas fired back. "We have plenty to discuss."
She opened her mouth, but her cell phone buzzed. She took a step toward the chair arm where the phone was lying, and Joelle looked at the caller ID on the screen. She mumbled some profanity. Dallas glanced at the screen, too, and he saw the call was from Owen.
"Excuse me a second," she grumbled, and snatched up the phone. "Everything's okay," she greeted her groom-to-be.
Dallas just listened. Except Joelle wasn't saying anything. Owen was doing all the talking, and Dallas couldn't make out a word the weasel was saying. But he could guess the gist of the one-sided conversation that was making every muscle in Joelle's body go stiff.
Owen likely wanted to know why Joelle's ex-lover was in her dressing room at the church justDallas checked the timefifty-one minutes before she was to become Owen's bride.
"I'll take care of this," Joelle said, and she jabbed the end button. She whirled back around to face him. "You have to go."
As if that would get him to budge. "You're within days, maybe hours, of sending your report to the governor." Who also happened to be her boss.
A report that could crush Dallas a thousand times over.
She huffed again and put her hands on her hips. The move caused the sides of her robe to open in a vee, and he got a glimpse of a lacy white bra and her right nipple that the lace in no way concealed.
Dallas felt that old familiar tug, deep within his body, and he told that tug to take a fast hike. Joelle was no longer a woman he wanted in his bed.
And he was almost certain of that.
But just in case he had doubts about it, he didn't have any doubts about the woman herself. Sexual stuff might still be lingering between them, but he didn't want her in his life.
She'd made her choice sixteen years ago. A choice that had broken his stupid teenage heart. And yeah, that was a long time ago, but forgiving and forgetting weren't what he saw himself doing when it came to Joelle. Actually, to anybody.
"The report?" he reminded her. Reminded himself, too. And he cursed that blasted nipple-peek for distracting him.
"My report is just that, a report of my observations. The local sheriff at Rocky Creek is already investigating the case, but the governor wants to know if he should request the Texas Rangers to go in and assist. So he'll read what I've written and decide what to do."
No. It wasn't just a report. And as for the sheriff's investigation, that wasn't going anywhere. The sheriff had only been on the job a few months, had little experience in law enforcement. No. If anyone found anything incriminating, it'd be Joelle and her team of hotshot investigators that she had crawling all over the state.
Dallas aimed his index finger at her. "This report could destroy Kirby." His foster father. And a man he darn sure wouldn't see destroyed.
Joelle dodged his gaze, turned, and gave him another view of that blasted bra. The left nipple this time. Great day in the morning! He didn't need this.
Nor the other thing he saw.
He'd missed it at first because the pendant was literally tucked in her bra, but it shifted, slipped out, and he spotted the gold heart locket. Not a flashy piece, this one was coated with fine scratches and even a little tarnish. It looked like the one he'd given her for her sixteenth birthday, but he had to be wrong about that. And even if he wasn't, if it was indeed the same necklace, maybe it was the "something old" part of her bridal garb.
Dallas wondered whose picture was inside it now.
Definitely not his.
"This isn't a good time for the cat to get your tongue," Dallas reminded her.
Again, she opened her mouth to say something, but there was a knock at the door before she could get out even a syllable. Both of them groaned and cursed the interruption. At this rate, the day would be over before he got answers.
"Ignore it," Dallas insisted.
Another knock. "Joelle, it's me, Lindsey. Owen called and wanted me to check on you."
Joelle did the opposite of ignoring it. She stepped around him, unlocked the door and threw it open. The tall, curvy brunette peered in, first at Joelle and then at Dallas.
"Are you, uh, okay?" she asked Joelle.
"I'm fine," Joelle snapped. She followed the woman's gaze to the lacy bra, cursed again and jerked the robe shut. "My friend was just leaving."
"No. He's not," Dallas said. "Not until we get this straight."
Lindsey volleyed concerned looks between them, and she handed Joelle the plastic cup she was holding. "Jack Daniel's, straight up," she told Joelle. "I figured you could use it."
"I can." Joelle took the shot in one gulp. "I won't be long," she added, sounding even more riled than Dallas was.
Joelle whirled around, put her back to the door and faced him head-on. "I can't do this now. Please go."
The please gave him a few seconds pause. She hadn't said it in angersomething he knew firsthand that she was pretty good atbut rather in a breathy whisper. Still, he couldn't let a breathy plea stop him.
"We settle this now," he insisted.
She groaned and scratched her head, mussing more of that perfect hairdo. "If Kirby did something wrong all those years ago, then I can't keep it hidden away."
Something wrong? Yeah. More like something right.
"I'm sure I don't have to remind you, but sixteen years ago Kirby got me and my foster brothers out of that hellhole."
In this case, the hellhole was the Rocky Creek Children's Facility. A down-home name for a notorious orphanage that had nearly destroyed him.
"Kirby may have pulled strings to get custody of you," she added, then swallowed hard. "Not just you, but the others. Clayton, Harlan, Slade, Wyatt. And especially Declan."
All five of his foster brothers. Yeah, there might have been an irregularity or two in the paperwork that had given Kirby guardianship and then full custody. But if Kirby hadn't gotten them out, none of them might be alive right now. They sure as heck wouldn't all be deputy U.S. marshals and running a successful ranch.
"Kirby may have done some other things to make sure custody wasn't contested," Joelle added in a whisper.
Dallas knew exactly what she meant because he'd already gotten wind of her so-called report that the governor would use to determine if the Texas Rangers should open a full-scale investigation against Kirby. An investigation that could lead to some charges.
Now it was Dallas's turn to swallow hard. He couldn't let that happen to Kirby.
The photos of the dead man's bones flashed through his head. They'd been found seven weeks ago, a little over a mile from the now abandoned Rocky Creek facility. A crew working on the power lines had uncovered it.
Jonah Webb's body.
The devil of a man who'd once run Rocky Creek and someone who'd been missing for sixteen years.
"Jonah's rib cage showed signs of knife wounds," Jo-elle explained.
Something else he didn't need to be reminded of. And that brought back another set of images that Dallas would rather forget. "I read the forensic reports."
He'd also studied the police file and the official notification from the governor to authorize Joelle, one of the state's legal advisers, to conduct an independent inquiry to determine what had gone on at the state-run facility all those years ago.
"My father didn't kill Jonah Webb," Dallas concluded.
Something went through her eyes. Not a glare this time, but something he couldn't quite figure out. "The governor's a fair man."
That gave Dallas zero reassurance. "If there's something in your report that implicates my father, and I'm pretty sure there is, then the governor will have no choice but to make it an official investigation."
She blew out a long breath, swiped some of those now dangling strands of hair from her face.
He waited, mentally rehearsing the argument to make her amend that report. Or burn it. Or just plain lie. "Arresting my father wouldn't be justice, and you know it."
"Yes, but it would be the law," she snapped.
"To hell with the law." Dallas nearly winced at his own words. He was a federal marshal, sworn to obey the very laws that might take his father from him.
He forced himself to regain what little composure he could. "My father's not in good health and might not survive something like this." That caused the anger to roar through him again. "You can stop it now."
She shook her head, and yet something different went through her eyes. Not emotion exactly, but she got a weird glazed look.
Joelle touched her fingers to her forehead, and the plastic cup slipped from her hand and clattered onto the hardwood floor. "You have to go."
Like the please, that was all breath.
Dallas looked at the cup on the floor. At the dress. And then at her. "What's going on?"
"I'm marrying Owen," she said. Still whispered, except this time there was a tremble in her voice. Her hands were shaking, too.
Dallas caught her arm. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head, and her eyelids fluttered down. "I think someone drugged me." Her words were so slurred that it took him a moment to realize what she'd said.
What the devil was going on here? "It's not safe for either of us," she mouthed through those trembling peach-tinged lips.
And with that, Joelle crumpled right into his arms.