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Things never changed.
At least here on the southern edge of Texas at the J-Bar-J ranch where Virgil "Bull" McCabe had grown up, they didn't.
Before pulling through the arching stone gate that marked the ranch's entrance, he slowed his black pickup on the dusty gravel road to take a good look at the sprawling landscape, dotted with cacti and scrub pines, where he'd grown up. Somehow he'd thought ten years and 1300 miles would make a difference. But they hadn't.
His barrel-size chest expanded with a painful breath as he tapped on the brake and the memories came flooding back. All the hard work that he'd been a part of from boyhood to make an operation of this size a successbreaking and moving and birthing livestock, battling the elements, building and repairing fence lines. The connections he shared with his older brother, Morgan, and younger brother, Wyatt, the harsh criticisms and hurtful secrets that had forced them to stand as one. His mother's tragic death.
That painful breath eased out on a wry laugh.
His father had been keeping a doozy of a secret this time. This wasn't just another affair he'd had while married to their mother. Justice had fathered a daughter. A girl who was now a teenager. Another casualty from Justice McCabe's selfish, womanizing ways. And, as usual, Bull and his brothers had been called on to put a bandage on the wounds Justice's choices inflicted on those around him.
The gray limestone hills grew more rugged and rocky as they dropped off toward the Rio Grande River valley and its tributaries to the west. The land to the east, sectioned off by a network of irrigation canals, flattened out to succulent green pasture where hundreds of fat brown cattle and horses grazed. The gently sloping hills to the north led to a dammed-up reservoir and the neighboring Cobb ranch where he'd taken his horse on many rides to escape the arguments in the main house and stables. And behind him, about a mile to the south, was Mexico.
Pulling off his sunglasses, Bull scrubbed his hand across the dark brown stubble that peppered his square jaw and peered through the windshield. The barren landscape where he stood taller than almost any tree was a stark contrast to the crowded streets and steel high-rises of the Chicago neighborhood where he worked as a detective. He tucked his fingers beneath the unbuttoned collar of his damp, white shirt and wished for the snow and cold and biting lake wind he'd left up north. Even in mid-December with the A/C on in his truck, he could feel the sun beating down on him and heating his emotions.
This was a mistake. Why the hell had he let Wyatt talk him into this? He didn't belong here anymore. Their father had made that painfully clear. The two of them had gotten into a shoving match out in the barn that day during spring break.
"You're gonna learn to do things my way, Bull McCabe. And if you don't like my rules, you don't have to stay."
But now he was back. He'd traveled down here from the northern edge of the country in just over twenty-four hours. His muscles were stiff and his neck ached. He was beat. But he needed to shift his truck into Drive and finish the last half mile of his journey. Someone needed him.
As Bull crossed through the gate, he recognized the familiar, two-story white house with its wraparound porch and pine-shingled roof. Framed by whitewashed barns and metal outbuildings, the house stood like a lonely beacon of civilization on the endless horizon of J-Bar-J land. This was Justice McCabe's own little country, west of the Texas town of Serpentine.
And Bull had stopped being a citizen there ten years earlier.
He'd never envisioned himself coming back home to this place, to his fatherhe'd never wanted to.
But the phone call from his brother Wyatt had him handing off cases and leaving early for his holiday vacation. "Bring your gun and your badge, Bull," Wyatt had said. "We need to save her."
Bull didn't intend to be here any longer than he had to be. Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt McCabe might have lost their beloved mother, Jeanne, to a traffic accident a decade ago, but she'd been dying inside long before that because of their father's cheating. He'd be damned if he'd let another family member be hurt because of his fathereven a sister he never knew they had.
"What the hell?" Bull pulled up behind a pair of departmental SUVs parked in the circular drive near the bottom of the front-porch steps. He recognized the dark-haired man in the blue jeans and cowboy hat, wearing a gun at his waist and a sheriff's badge on his shirt pocket. That was his brother Wyatt. He could even guess the dark-haired woman arguing with him was some kind of law enforcement, judging by the brown-and-tan uniform she wore.
What he didn't recognize was the evergreen garland, strewn with lights and red bows that draped around the porch railing and twisted up each post to another row of lights anchored to the gutter. And beyond the couple at the top of the steps, just to the right of the door, a tall pine tree, hung with ornaments and lights and an angel on top was framed in the front windows. What kind of game was this? There hadn't been a Christmas celebrated at the J-Bar-J since their mother had died.
Maybe some things did change. But the unexpected decorations only made him suspicious. What was Justice up to? Did he think a few imported greeneries and sparkly lights could convince Bull to make this emergency visit a permanent move home?
He pulled his gun from the glove compartment and slipped it into the shoulder holster he wore beneath his left arm before opening the truck door. The heated debate that was mostly onesided felt more like the home he'd left behind than the brightly colored holiday decor did. Bull shook his head and reached back across the cab for his gray, Western-tailored blazer and shrugged into it, making sure his badge was visible on his belt before approaching his brother and the dark-haired woman with the sharp tongue.
"We don't have time for family reunions and strategy meetings." Her Latin heritage was evident in the lilting fire of her voice. "The Los Jaguares and Javier Calderon are dangerous men. We need to get on this case right now."
"There's no point to chasing after rumors and shadows. More people could get hurt." Wyatt dipped his face toward hers and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Let me handle this." Then he turned to Bull and hoofed it down the steps to greet him. "Hey, big man."
"Pipsqueak." Bull caught his brother's outstretched hand and pulled him in for a hug that included slapping backs and nods acknowledging the years they'd been apart and the bond they'd forged long before that. Despite the four inches and fifty pounds he had on his younger brother, the storm-gray eyes that looked back at him were the same as when they separated. Trouble was brewing on the J-Bar-J. Or maybe just on the J-Bar-J's front porch. Bull arched a curious eyebrow toward the woman pacing at the top of the steps. "You two need a room?" he teased. "To duke it out or, um, resolve your personal issues in some other way?"
"We do not have personal " The woman silenced her protest just as quickly as she'd turned to make it. "We were having a professional difference of opinion, that's all."
"Give it a rest, Bull," Wyatt warned. "Things have been pretty tense around here the past few days."
"Is Morgan here?"
"Where the hell is he? Why doesn't he have to deal with this latest McCabe family Christmas crisis?"
"He's on a mission out of the country somewhere. I've called in every favor I can to try and track him down. But he's off the grid for now. Once I get a hold of him, though, he'll be here. I'm sure of it. You're the one I was worried wouldn't show up."
"Yeah, well, just know I'm doing this as a favor to you. I'm not staying any longer than I have to."
"I'll take what I can get." Wyatt motioned for Bull to follow him up the steps. "This is Elena Vargas, a local ICE agent. We serve together on the Border Security Task Force. My big brother, Bull McCabe. He's the Chicago PD detective I told you about. He's worked a lot of drug cases over the years. And nobody knows this land the way he does. If there's any track to follow, any place to hide, he'll find it."
"A big-city cop?" The woman looked skeptical.
Bull looked downway downto meet the agent's dark eyes. He hadn't earned his nickname just from the rodeos he'd competed in back in high school and college. He was the biggest and brawniest of the three McCabe brothers, and he was impressed that Elena Vargas didn't seem intimidated by that fact.
"Agent Vargas." They shook hands. "Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Does that have something to do with the girl's disappearance? Is she an illegal?"
"She's blond-haired and has eyes the same color as you and your brother." She propped her hands on her hips and challenged him. "Think you can find a girl like that around here with your tracking skills, detective?"
Bull ignored the sarcasm. "Things don't change much around this part of the country, Agent Vargas. I remember it well."
Wyatt backed him up. "There's probably not an inch of this ranch Bull hasn't covered on horseback, ATV or on foot. And he knows how these kind of people operate. We need his expertise."
"You need it," Elena insisted. "There's no time for random searches through the countryside. Calderon and his Los Jag-uares are dangerous men. I believe this kidnapping is related to a drug-smuggling operation I've been investigating. I'm willing to work with the sheriff's department on this, Wyattto let you handle it personally to protect this foolish sister of yours. But I'm not willing to wait forever."
"I haven't even had a chance to talk to my brother Morgan. At least let me give Bull a briefing so he's up to speed on what's happening here. He could probably use some food and a few hours sleep, too."
With an impatient huff, Elena marched past both men down to her ICE vehicle. She didn't stop until she opened the door to her SUV and turned to give them an ultimatum. "I'll give you one hour, Wyatt. I hope the reinforcements you've called in can help us. But Calderon and his criminales won't wait. The task force needs to move on this. So one hour. Call me."
Wyatt was still staring as the dark-haired beauty drove away in a plume of dust.
Bull glanced over at the steely clench of his brother's jaw. He could see that Agent Vargas had wormed her way beneath Wy-att's cool, calm and collected facade. And that, apparently, wasn't a good thing. "Are you running this show, Sheriff, or is she?"
Wyatt flashed him a snarky glance before hiding his face beneath the brim of his hat. "Come on inside. I'll explain everything I know about the kidnapping and Brittany."
Bull followed him to the door. "What's to explain? The old man never could keep it in his pants. Broke Mom's heart more than once. You're probably too young to remember much of that."
"I remember enough. But you can't hold a grudge forever, Bull," Wyatt explained. "Brittany's in the kind of trouble that supersedes family secrets and the bad history you share with Dad." Wyatt opened the door and halted before stepping inside. "She needs us. She needs the kind of help that you, Morgan and I can give her."
"Not the kind of help that Agent Vargas can?"
"Protecting Brittany and getting her safely home isn't Elena's priority."
"But it has to be ours, right?"
Wyatt's shoulders lifted and he looked Bull square in the eye. "Brittany's a good kid. But she's got nobody but us. This family is fractured enough as it is. I intend to protect whatever we have left. Are you in?"
Bull nodded, impressed with how the pipsqueak had grown up, even if his ideology was a little too rose-colored-glasses for Bull's taste. "I'm in."
Catching the door, Bull followed his brother into the front entryway. But his purposeful stride slowed as another wave of memories washed over him. The pungent scent of fresh pine tickled his nose. The tree he'd seen through the front window must be freshly cut. It matched another garland of greenery and lights that looped through a peg board running along the foyer wall that held hats and keys and jackets.
Bull's breath lodged in his chest. Other than the new decorations, this place was like a museum frozen in time. A black Stetson, wide-brimmed and shaped to fit his own head, hung from a wooden peg. Wyatt disappeared around the corner into the main room, calling for their father while Bull reached out to brush his fingertips over the soft crease in the Stetson's crown. He'd left the hat hanging there that last day he'd stormed out and driven off to his dorm in College Station without any intention of ever returning.
He knocked a layer of dust off the crown and then wiped his fingers on the leg of his jeans as his attention turned to the other keepsakes on display in the entryway. There was Morgan's state fair ribbon on the wall beside some academic thing Wyatt had won. And on the front table, nestled among family portraits and more greenery, stood a glassed-in shadow box on a small easel. His silver high-school rodeo champion belt buckle was mounted inside. A slow smile spread across Bull's mouth as he remembered the pride he'd felt the day he'd outlasted that giant Brahma and earned that championship. For a few days after that, he'd been on top of the world, invincible. For a few days, his dad had been proud of him.
Bull glanced around to take it all in. These were the good memories he had of growing up here. Their mother had proudly framed and shown off each of her sons' accomplishments. Automatically, Bull's gaze went to the image of the petite dynamo who had raised them. He touched his fingertip to the glass over her smiling face. "Miss you, Mom."
The one anomaly in the collection of family artifacts drew his attention to a lump of yellow clay, crudely molded with several stubby extensions protruding in various directions. Bull picked up the tiny sculpture and frowned. Unlike the other keepsakes on the front table, it was free of dust, clearly a new addition. Where had it come from? And who besides their mother had ever cared to put a piece of a child's art on display?
He heard the footsteps on the stairs and tensed.