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This year was different. Cade Jackson couldn't swear why exactly, just that he wasn't anticipating the anniversary of his wife's death with as much dread.
Maybe time did heal. Not that he didn't miss his wife. Or think of her. Especially with the anniversary of Grace's death only days away. He just didn't hurt as much when he thought of her. Nor after six years did he think of her as often.
There was something sad about that, he thought, as he watched the other ropers from the top rung of the corral. The thunder of hooves raised a cloud of dust that moved slowly across the enclosed arena.
Outside, snow continued to fall, promising a white Christmas. He breathed in the comforting scent of leather and horses, both as natural to him as the lay of the land beyond the arena walls.
Snow-covered open prairie ran to the deep cut of the Missouri River as it wound its way through Montana, the dark outline of the Little Rockies that broke the horizon.
He felt as if he'd come of out of a coma. Everything looked and smelled and felt new and different. He'd missed a lot of holidays with his family, lost in that dark place that his grief had taken him. But this year he felt as if he might make it through the holidays without having to hide out at his cabin or in his ice-fishing shack until Christmas was over.
Cade felt an odd prickling just under his skin and looked toward the window. Snow fell in huge flakes that floated down blanketing the earth with both cold and silence. He frowned at the sudden sense of apprehension he'd felt just moments before. What had that been about?
He shook it off. He wasn't going to let the old ghosts get to him. He was finally feeling as if he might make it.
Andi Blake discovered a manila envelope on her desk when she got back to the newspaper from lunch. She'd spent her first morning at the Milk River Examiner cleaning off her predecessor's desk, only a little unnerved by the fact that he'd been murdered, thus the opening.
Glen Whitaker hadn't been neat. After boxing up all of his notes, she'd cleaned the desk, scrubbing away months if not years of grime.
She gave the envelope only a sideways glance as she slipped off her jacket and hung it over the back of her chair.
The envelope was addressed to her and had a Whitehorse postmark. Nothing unusual about that except for the fact that it was addressed to Andi West, the name she'd gone by as a television newscaster in Fort Worth, Texas.
She felt a shiver of trepidation. No one here knew her as Andi let alone Andi West. Her full name was Miranda West Blake. She had been named after her father, Weston Blake. He was the one who'd nicknamed her Andi.
To put Fort Worth and the past far behind her when she'd applied for this job though, she'd used Miranda Blake and now wrote as M. W. Blake.
She'd thought by moving to Whitehorse, Montana, and using her real name that she would be able to escape from the terror that had run her out of Texas. Had it followed her?
Her heart pounded. All her old fears came back in a wave of nausea. Was it possible there was nowhere she could get away from it?
Fingers trembling, she picked up the envelope, turning it in her fingers. The contents felt light. And the package didn't sound like it was ticking. Something slid inside making her jump.
Her fear, though, gave way to anger. She was sick of being scared. She'd given up everything she loved because of some psycho. If he'd found her
Taking out her letter opener, she sliced through one end of the envelope and carefully dumped the contents onto her desk.
She'd gotten enough of these at the television station that she knew what to expect.
A white cassette tape thudded to the desktop an instant before a piece of newspaper fluttered down beside it, surprising her.
She frowned and picked up the tape. It was file-card size. There was nothing written on it. She glanced at the CD player on her desk and wondered where she might find a cassette player that played this size tape.
Not that she would play it. She'd learned it was better not to listen to the calls although she'd read most of the letters before handing them over to the police. Except the police hadn't been able to find her stalker let alone stop him or the threatening letters and calls.
Putting down the tape, she turned her attention to the other item from the envelope. As she unfolded the news-print, she saw that it was a clipping of a local newspaper brief about a woman named Grace Jackson who'd died in a one-car rollover south of town.
She felt a wave of relief. Apparently someone thought the story warranted a follow-up. That's all this was.
True it was odd because the accident had happened six years ago Christmas Eve.
But at least it wasn't connected to Texas. Or her. She tried to relax.
Still the fact that it had been sent to Andi West bothered her. Who besides the newspaper publisher, Mark Sanders, knew her television name?
Just then Mark Sanders came in the door.
She held up the clipping and he took it from her as he walked by her desk, glanced at the story and handed the clipping back saying, "Yeah, that was real sad. They hadn't been married long." He started to walk off.
"Do you want me to do a follow-up?" she asked his retreating back.
He stopped to glance over his shoulder and frowned. "Can't see any reason. It's been what"
"Six years," she said.
"Right. No reason to bring it back up," Sanders said.
"Someone sent it to me."
"Just file it. You're covering the Parade of Lights tonight, right? It's a pretty big deal in Whitehorse. You sure you don't mind shooting it, too?"
"No problem." She didn't bring up the name thing. It was possible, she realized, that Mark Sanders had told someone who she was thinking no one in Whitehorse, Montana, would care let alone cause her any trouble.
"I've got it covered," she assured him, imagining what her best friend back at the television station in Fort Worth would say if he knew she was covering parades for a small-town weekly newspaper, taking the photographs as well as writing the stories.
She hadn't talked to Bradley since she'd left Texas. Maybe she'd call him. She was sure he was probably worried about her since he'd tried to talk her out of coming up here. She missed him and hadn't wanted to call until things were going better. She didn't want to hear him say I-told-you-so. Even though he was right. She feared this move had been a huge mistake.
But she had some time to kill before the Parade of Lights and she really needed her friend.
Just the sound of Bradley's voice brought tears to her eyes.
"Hello?" The apprehension she heard in his voice surprised and worried her.
"It's me," she said quickly. "Are you all right?"
"Hey." Instantly he sounded like his old self again. "I'm fine. I just thought it was someone else calling. I've been getting some obscene telephone calls. I might enjoy them if I was straight," he said with a laugh. "I am so glad you called. I have been worried to death about you. I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about me."
"No chance of that," she said, tucking her feet up under her. It was almost like old times talking with him over a delivery pizza and old movies.
"So how bad is it?" he asked.
"I told you not to take that job. You must be bored to tears. You haven't been banished, you know. You can get on the next plane and be back in Texas in a matter of hours. I'll pick you up at the airport."
She laughed. It was tempting.
"So how horrible is it in the wild, wild West?" he asked. "You can tell me."
"It's freezing cold for starters."
"I know. I confess I've been watching the weather. I knew you were going to freeze your cute little behind off." He laughed. "Seriously, how are you?"
"Homesick for you, for warm weather, for Mexican food." She smiled. "There isn't any in Whitehorse."
"Imagine that," he said with a smile in his voice.
"So how are things at the station?"
"It's been bloody hell. There was practically a revolt over your job even though everyone knew the position was only temporary."
Her boss had promised to hold her job for six months.
"So who got it? Anyone I know?"
Bradley let out a dramatic sigh and she knew.
"Rachel," she said. Rachel was as close a female friend as she'd had at the station. "I'm happy for her."
"Oh, please," Bradley said. "You can be honest. It's me, remember?"
Andi laughed. It felt good. "You're just jealous because she won't let you try on her shoes."
"I miss you."
"I miss you, too." She hated to ask, but she had to. "Has the station received any more threats addressed to me?"
That telltale beat of silence, then, "I made sure they were turned over to the police."
Hearing this surprised her. She'd thought the threats would stop once she wasn't on the air anymore.
"I'll bug the cops until they find this freak and lock him up so you can come home."
She smiled through her tears. "You're a good friend." She hung up, glad she'd called him. She felt better about her decision to come to Montana. If the television station was still getting threatening letters for her, she was much better off being as far away from Fort Worth as she could get.
As she started to file away the news article about the woman who'd died in the single-car accident, she stopped to read it through again, still curious why anyone would have sent it to her.
The deceased woman, Grace Jackson, had apparently been driving at a high rate of speed when she'd lost control of her car south of town. The car had rolled numerous times before landing in a ravine where it had caught fire.
As she had the first time she'd read it, Andi shuddered at the thought of the poor woman being trapped in the vehicle and burning to death. There were so few vehicles on the roads up here and miles between ranches let alone towns. Even if the car hadn't burned, the woman probably would have died before someone had come along.
According to the article, Grace Jackson had been married to a Cade Jackson. Wasn't the sheriff's name Jackson? Carter Jackson, as she recalled from reading back papers to familiarize herself with the town.
She wondered if Cade and Carter were related. Pretty good chance given their names. The sheriff's name had come up quite a lot in the newsincluding the murder of the reporter who'd had this desk, Glen Whitaker.
She looked again at the manila envelope the newspaper clipping and tape had come in, checking to make sure there wasn't a note that she'd missed. Nothing. The envelope had been mailed in Whitehorse so at least it was from someone local.
She filed the story, still a little anxious, though, that at least one person in town knew her other name.
As she pocketed the cassette tape, she wondered where she could find a tape player.
The parade of Lights definitely was an event in Whitehorse, Montana. Andi stood on a curb with the rest of the county that had turned out, everyone bundled up for the cold, snowy December night, as one homemade float after another cruised by.
The air was filled with excitement, the stores along the main street open and lit brightly for the event. The smell of Christmas trees, hot cider and Native American fry bread wafted in the chilly air.
The streets were packed with not only townspeople, but also apparently ranchers and their families had come in from miles around for the event.
Andi shot a dozen photographs of the floats, surprised at how many there were given the temperature and how much work had gone into some of them.
She liked the small-town feel, which surprised her. It felt like an extended family as she heard people visiting and calling greetings from the floats.
Just as she was finishing up, she heard someone call out, "Cade!"
She looked up to see an attractive woman waving from one of the floats. Andi followed the woman's gaze to a man leaning against the building yards to her right. She could see only his profile, his face in shadow under the brim of his Western hat, but he was tall and all cowboy. He wore boots, jeans, a sheepskin coat and a Stetson, the brim pulled low, dark hair curling out from under the hat at his nape.
From the way he stood, back in the shadows, she got the impression he had hoped to go unnoticed.
Cade Jackson? The husband of the deceased woman from the newspaper clipping?
Andi lifted the camera and impulsively snapped his photograph. As she pulled the camera down, he disappeared into the crowd.
Cold and tired, she returned to the newspaper office just down the block, anxious to get her photographs into the computer. Warmer, she decided to go ahead and write up her story even though it was late.
She knew she was just avoiding the small apartment she'd rented on the other side of town. It wasn't far from the newspaper given that Whitehorse was only ten blocks square. She usually drove to work out of habit more than necessity, although she didn't relish walking through all the snow.
The apartment was small and impersonal to the point of being depressing. In time she would make it hers, but right now she preferred the newspaper office to home.
After she put in the photographs and wrote cutlines for each, she sat down at the computer to write an accompanying article.
Her mind wandered, though, and she found herself calling up the photograph of the cowboy she'd seen on the main street tonight, the one the woman had called Cade. How many Cades could there be in Whitehorse?
The publisher had said Cade Jackson and his wife, Grace, had only been married a short period of time before her death. That meant there should be a wedding announcement in the file, she thought, unable to shake her curiosity as to why someone had sent the cassette and clipping to her.