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Cagney glanced around the large parking area of High Country Medical Center at the snaking vehicles and foot traffic slithering slowly in. She couldn't believe how many people were showing up for a stupid press conference. Then again, this was Troublesome Gulch, Colorado, where curiosity reigned. Where else would a simple media event merit this level of police presence?
She adjusted her gun belt to rest more comfortably on her hip bones, waved at one of her fellow officers who'd been assigned to work the event, too, then checked her watch. Barely nine o'clock in the morning, and she was already bored out of her mind. Go figure. Just another day in the life of Officer Cagney Bishop.
She hated crowd control almost as much as she hated traffic duty. In fact, she hated most of her duties, unless they included dealing with disadvantaged kids or truly helping people, and honestly, how often did that happen?
Inside, she groaned. How many years until she could retire? She began calculations in her head, just to pass the time.
As if sensing her need for a break in the monotony of a job that fit her like a cheaply-made dress, Cagney's cell phone rang. She freed it from the pouch on her duty belt, checked the caller ID, then smiled and flipped it open. "Hey, Faith. How's the baby?"
Faith Montesantos Austin had given birth to her and Brody's first daughter three months earlier and was riding out the tail end of leave from her job as counselor at Troublesome Gulch High School. They'd named the baby Mickie, after Faith's late sister who died in the prom night crash along with Tad, Kevin and Randy.
"She's perky and great, as usual. Woke meup three times last night, though, so she's fat-bellied and chipper, while I'm beat, bloated and bitter."
"Tell me." Faith groaned. "It's why they have to make babies cute, you know."
"So true. Huh, Hope?" The scruffy puppy Brody had given her during his marriage proposal barked once in the background. Faith laughed, then asked,
"What are you up to? Are you coming by?"
When duty allowed, Cagney stopped in for a morning coffee visit to keep Faith sane during her extended maternity leave.
Faith's tone turned plaintive. "I need adult contact, Cag. Girl talk, someone to reassure me that the baby weight really is melting away. I mean, my God, have you seen Erin?" she added, referring to their close mutual friend, Erin DeLuca, a Troublesome Gulch firefighter. "Granted, she had Nate Jr. a few months before Mickie's grand entrance, but she looked like an Olympic athlete freakin' three weeks after she gave birth. So not fair."
"True, but remember, she only gained nineteen pounds with her pregnancy and she's a workout maniac."
"Casey Laine Bishop, are you calling me a slug?"
Cagney laughed softly. No one ever called her Casey anymore. "Not at all, hon. Erin's just in a different physical class than most of us. We have to accept it and move on, or we'll fall into the body image self-loathing pit and never scratch our way out."
"Lucky wench, that Erin. It's a good thing I love her so much, or I'd hate her."
"Don't hate her because she's bionic," Cagney teased.
"Seriously, I'm regretting every single time I uttered the word supersize during those nine months of blinding French-fry cravings and zero self-control." Faith sighed. "So, now that I'm totally depressed and fat, are you coming over, or what?"
"Can't. Sorry. Chief assigned me to crowd control at the hospital, oh, joy." She rolled her eyes.
"The hospOh! I'd forgotten that hoopla was today." Mickie started fussing in the background, and Faith shushed her gently. "What's up with the new wing anyway? Any insider info?"
"None." Cagney raised her chin to acknowledge the hand signal from the cop working traffic control at the entrance about fifty yards away from her, then waved a sleek, black limousine past the barricade she guarded. The mystery guest of honor, of course. Who else rode around in a stretch limo in Troublesome Freakin'Gulch?
She strained for a peek through the heavily tinted windows but saw nothing. Her hat brim and dark sunglasses didn't help. "Cops don't rate insider info. Not this cop, at least. Anyway, surprise benefactor, surprise wing, blah blah blah. Supposedly something that will put Troublesome Gulch on the map."
"Ooh," Faith mocked. "I swear, they're always trying to put Troublesome Gulch on one stupid map or the other, and yet our claim to fame remains being 'that mountain town with the horrible prom night tragedy from way back when.' Sorry for the ugly reminder," she said quickly, "but really, all this municipal social climbing is futile and annoying."
"Believe me, I agree. But you know how old Walt loves his publicity," Cagney added wryly, referring to the camera-loving city manager. "I'll fill you in as soon as I get any kind of scoop whatsoever. It'll probably be anticlimactic after all the buildup, though."
"I don't know why they've been so secretive," Faith said, her tone peevish. "Don't they grasp the fact that this is a small town? We're supposed to know everyone else's business. It's part of the benefits package."
Cagney snickered. "I guess the moneymanor womanwanted it this way."
"Yeah, but why?"
"Who knows? Rich people can be freaky and demanding. And when you're donating an entire wing to a hospital, you get whatever you ask for. We're talking millions."
"I wonder how much, exactly?"
"No clue. More than I'll ever see in this lifetime, that's for sure." She paused to watch the tail end of the limo disappear into the underground garage that had been secured for its private use, as if the First Lady herself had donated the wing. "You have to admit, all talk of maps aside, this is the most exciting thing that's happened in Troublesome Gulch in a while."
"But that's not saying much." Faith sighed again. "Well, call me as soon as you know something juicy. All I have on my agenda is laundry, laundry and more laundry. Who knew a baby would go through so many clothes?"
"You have my sympathy. Just wait until she's a teenager."
"Hush your mouth. She'll always be my precious baby."
A pang of envy struck Cagney's middle. "You know I'd switch places with you in a minute."
"I'll call you at 3:00 a.m. and remind you of those words," Faith said, her tone wry.
"Okay, never mind." Cagney chuckled. An electric excitement rippled through the press area, and at the same time her radio crackled with conversation. She tilted her ear to her shoulder mic to listen; the dog and pony show was about to get started. "Gotta go. Kiss that little sweetie for me."
She hung up without waiting for an answer, then slipped the phone back into its holder. After securing her barricades, she moved closer so she didn't miss anything. Faith would kill her if she didn't memorize every single detail for later.
From the curtained-off area behind the outdoor dais, Jonas Eberhardt listened dispassionately as the city manager used every effusive suck-up phrase known to man during his blustery, prolonged introduction. Jonas shook his head with disgust. The man sure liked to hear himself talk.
Tuning out the blowhard, Jonas tried to focus on this moment he'd been anticipating for more than a decade. He'd fantasized about it, dreamed it, visualized it, and yet so far, it fell short of what he'd expected. He'd begun orchestrating this revenge plot almost since he'd driven away, brokenhearted, from Cagney Bishop's house all those years ago, and he'd always planned to revel in every single second. He had pictured spending this day lording over the Gulchers in repayment for having always passed unfair judgment on him and his mother.
It wasn't working that way.
To his shock, everyone so far had been gracious. Genuinely, or so it seemed. Certainly it had something to do with the fact that he had money now, his inner cynic whispered. He should be happy they were welcoming, regardless of the reason, but he couldn't seem to muster up the emotion. Wealthy or not, he still didn't belong.
With a yank on one diamond-and-platinum-cufflinked sleeve, then the other, he frowned at his inner turmoil. Throughout all of his extensive planning, he hadn't foreseen the strangeness of being back in the town he despised after so many years. It defied simple description. After all he'd accomplished in the computer world, he hadn't banked on feeling like that same unwanted outsider, that shame-filled kid who'd tried so hard to blend in.
Shoot, with the staggering amount of money he'd just handed over to the hospital board, they ought to give him the key to the damn city and rename the main road after him. And yet, a small part of him felt somehow undeserving.
Which was bull, of course. But the town stripped him of confidence, seemingly without trying.
The hand-tailored suit he wore cost more than twelve months' rent on that dilapidated trailer he'd spent his high-school years living in. So why did he still feel like the lonely, misjudged teenager from the bad side of town wearing secondhand jeans from the thrift shop?
He flinched. Stop it.
The surreal feelings churning inside him threatened to ruin everything. He clenched his jaw and fought to shake them off. The fact was, he'd more than succeeded in his life despite overwhelming odds, and no insular little Podunk town should be able to diminish that, not even Troublesome Gulch.
A familiar flash of pain, followed by a roar of self-preserving anger. He let his eyes drift shut for a moment. Okay, she was the problem, and the honest part of him knew it.
He had loved her more than anything in this world, opened up to her like he hadn't done with anyone before or since, and she'd ruthlessly trampled his heart. He never wanted to feel that kind of pain again.
The merciless part of him hoped she still lived here, though he knew she'd hear about this spectacle either way.And when it was all over, he hoped she felt this precision cut all the way down to the bone. God knew, his wounds at her hand were still festering, and paybacks were well, everyone knew exactly what they were.
He had learned that her bastard of a father still ran his dictatorship in the Gulch, and knowing this whole thing would infuriate the old man provided some consolation. But mostly, he focused on Cagney.
And yet, a twinge of something nagged at him.
Regret? Conscience? Self-doubt? Whatever it was, the fact that it detracted from this all-important day annoyed him. He deserved this. More importantly, she deserved this.
Being back in the Gulch brought forth the kid he used to be, and the problem was, it shook him. He never thought he'd end up being the kind of man who'd seek retribution, but prom nightthat deep betrayalhad killed something innocent inside him. His heart had shattered and his soul hardened in one fell swoop, and he'd vowed to show them all one day that Jonas Eberhardt couldn't be shoved aside like so much trash.
Every single decision he'd made in his adult life had led him toward this day, this place, this chance to subtly smack down a few people and set the record straight. He'd lived for this goal, worthy or not, so he'd better quash the unexpected doubt immediately or he'd miss out on the glory moment.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, he wrapped his hand around the talisman he always carried. In previous times of self-doubt, it had always given him strength of purpose. Power. Now it fueled him for what lay ahead. An eye for an eye, just as it should be. He'd make his pointone only Cagney would fully graspand then he'd hightail it out of Troublesome Gulch for the second time and never look back.
This town had made it abundantly clear what they thought of him twelve years ago, and his current financial status wouldn't change thatat least not for him. Today, despite his unexpected maelstrom of feelings and no matter how many millions it cost him, the last word would be his. The awkward feelings would dissipate eventually, and money had never mattered to him anyway.