HE CAME BACK A DIFFERENT MAN
The last time sheriff Samantha Calloway saw her husband was hours before he'd been pulled under by rapids. It wasn't until Wade came to her rescue during a mountain ambush that she knew he was alive. His return was a painful reminder of time lost, which had left their daughter fatherless. For a year he'd worked to expose law enforcement corruption and now cartel assassins were gunning for his family. Before, Samantha trusted no one more than Wade. If they could finish his assignment together, perhaps they'd find a fresh start. And his presence by her side sure made it hard to resist falling into old habits
|File size:||320 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sheriff Samantha Calloway hadn't cried this much since her husband went missing and was presumed dead. She swabbed the moisture from her cheeks with the back of her hand. These tears didn't come from sorrow. Smoke had got into her eyes.
She parked her white SUV with the sheriff's logo at a deserted intersection, climbed out and rested her elbows on the front fender to steady her binoculars. Beyond a wide field that was green with the new growth of early spring, she could see the approaching wildfire.
Though the crimson flames were far away, barely visible behind a distant ridge, smoke consumed the landscape. A stinging haze draped the spires of pine and spruce at the edge of Swain County in the high Rocky Mountains.
When she licked her lips, she tasted ash on her tongue. Her pale blue eyes continued to ooze with tears.
Caleb Schmidt, a deputy who had been with the sheriff's department for thirty years, one year longer than Sam had been alive, had followed her to this location. He got out of his vehicle and strutted toward her. A short, wiry man, Caleb thrust out his chest and swung his arms when he walked. Maybe he thought the posture made him look bigger. He pulled the dark blue bandana down from his mouth and squinted at her through his thick glasses.
"It's time," he said in a voice of doom, "time to start emergency evacuation procedures."
"Doggone it, Sheriff, we gotta hustle and"
"I've been in contact with the proper officials," she interrupted. "Fire Marshal Hobbs will tell me in plenty of time if we need to evacuate."
Caleb scoffed. Before he could say anything more, she stretched out her long arm and tugged on his bandana. "Where's your smoke mask?"
"Where's yours?" he retorted.
This morning when she'd started out, she had two boxes full of disposable ventilator masks that she'd gone to the trouble of ordering even though they weren't in her meager budget. Before noon, she'd given them all away without saving one for herself. Her late husband, Wade, would have pointed to her behavior as an example of her too-too-responsible attitude. And, she admitted to herself, Wade would have been right. Sam knew she couldn't take care of others if she didn't take care of herself first, but the other way around felt more natural.
"The wind's picking up," Caleb muttered. "The fire's on the move. I hear it's already burned two thousand acres. I'm advising you to reconsider."
"If I had reason to believe it might reach town, I wouldn't hesitate to get everybody out." Her five-year-old daughter was smack-dab in the middle of Woodridge at the sheriff's office in the two-story, red stone Swain County Courthouse, where the dispatch/911 operators were keeping an eye on her. Sam's regular babysitter had an asthmatic toddler and had driven down to Denver to get away from this awful smoke.
"We gotta be smart, gotta move fast." Caleb would not give up; he was a feisty little pug with a bone. "It ain't going to be easy to get some of these old coots to leave their houses."
He was right about that. A mandated evacuation of Woodridge would be a nightmare. Her county was the smallest in the state in terms of acreage and population. They didn't have a ski resort or a condo development or fertile land for farming. The entire sheriff's department consisted of twelve people, including Sam.
She swabbed the moisture from under her eyes and stared at her deputy. "I'm not going to change my mind. No mandatory evacuation unless the fire marshal says there's an imminent threat. Is that clear?"
Grudgingly, he said, "I guess you're the boss."
You got that right. None of her six deputies had been thrilled when she took over her husband's job as sheriff. That was over a year ago, and she'd been duly elected last February for one big fat obvious reason: she was the best qualified. As a teenager, she'd done volunteer search and rescue. She'd been top of her class at the police academy. Not to mention her three years' experience as a cop in Grand Junction before she married Wade. Still, her deputies second-guessed her at every turn.
"Deputy Schmidt, I want you to stay right here and keep an eye on things. That's an order."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, properly chastised.
The two-lane asphalt road pointed south was one of the few direct routes toward the flames. "Except for firefighting personnel, no vehicles are allowed to pass."
"And what are you going to do?"
She spotted the black Range Rover she'd been waiting for. "I need to go with Ty Baxter to check on a property."
"It's that FBI safe house. Am I right?"
"You know I can't tell you." Not that the location was a well-kept secret. "And you're not supposed to say anything about the safe house, either."
He mimed zipping his lips, fastening a lock and throwing away the key. Then he pulled up his bandana to cover his mouth and marched toward his vehicle.
FBI special agent Ty Baxter jumped from his Rover and came toward her with long strides. In his Stetson, denim jeans, snakeskin boots and white shirt with a yoke and pearly snaps, he could have looked as phony as a drugstore cowboy. But Ty pulled it off. After all, he was the real deal, the son of a local rancher.
He'd been her husband's best friend. They'd gone to school together, played football together and dated the same girls. Ty had won the heart of the prom queen. The whole county had been heartbroken when he and Loretta moved to Denver to pursue his career.
He gave her a big hug. "Looking good, Sam."
She knew better. Her blue eyes were bloodshot. Instead of makeup, she had jagged smears of ash across her face. Under her beige cowboy hat, her long brown hair was pulled back in a tight braid that hung halfway down to her waist. Her boxy khaki uniform wasn't designed to flatter. Not to mention the heavy-duty bulletproof vest under her shirt and the utility belt that circled her waist. On top of all that, she was fairly sure that she had pit stains.
"How's Jenny?" he asked.
"Getting taller every day."
Sam was six feet tall in her boots. "I kind of hoped she wouldn't inherit the giraffe gene."
Ty grinned and his dark brown eyes twinkled. "Both her parents are giraffes."
Wade had been six feet five inches tall. Whenever Sam was with Ty, her thoughts drifted toward her husband. The two men had been close. They even looked kind of alike. Both were tall and lean. Both had brown eyes and dark hair. Ty had been with Wade when he died.
She shook off the memories and returned Ty's easygoing smile. "You got here from Denver really fast."
"I was already on my way when I called about the safe house. Sam, there's something important I need to tell you."
She nodded. "We can talk on the way. We'll take my SUV. I need to be able to hear my dispatcher."
After reminding Deputy Schmidt to keep this route blocked, she got behind the steering wheel. When Ty joined her, he was carrying a gym bag from his Rover. Before he buckled up, he reached inside and took out his smooth, black, lethal-looking Beretta 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.
"Whoa," she said. "Are you planning to shoot the fire?"
"I like to be prepared." He clipped the holster to his belt. "Don't you?"
Prepared for what? Sam was wary. First, Ty had mentioned "something important" he wanted to talk about. Now he was packing a gun. She had a bad feeling about what fresh disaster might be lurking around the next corner. Hoping to avoid bigger problems, she asked about his family. "Are your twins still playing T-ball?"
"They're getting pretty good," he said, "and Loretta signed on to be coach of their team."
"Good for her." Sheriff Sam was happy to support women who broke the stereotypes.
"Surprised the hell out of me. I never thought my Loretta was athletic, but she's getting into sports."
Apparently, Ty had forgotten that Loretta was a rodeo barrel racer and a black-diamond skier. Because his little Loretta was capable of looking like a princess, he forgot her kick-ass side. Wade had never made that mistake with Samantha.
The first three miles of paved road swept across an open field. Under the smoky haze, the tall prairie grasses mingled with bright splashes of scarlet and blue wild-flowers. Then the road turned to graded gravel, still two lanes but bumpy. The scenery closed in around them as they entered a narrow canyon.
While she guided the SUV through a series of turns that followed the winding path of Horny Toad Creek, they chatted about family and how much Ty and Loretta missed living in the mountains. His dad wanted him to move back to Swain County and help out at the ranch.
"That would mean giving up your career," Sam said. "There's not much need for an FBI special agent around here."
He exhaled a sigh. "You and Wade had the right idea. Decide where you want to live, and then find a way to make a living."
When she and her husband started out, she hadn't been so sure they'd made a good decision. They were newlyweds with six acres and a good well outside Wood-ridge. She'd just quit her cop job and was trying to make ends meet on one salary. Within two months, she was pregnant. While expecting and unemployed, she was able to oversee every step of the construction.
The house they built was perfectly tailored for them. She'd even made the kitchen counters a few inches taller so she didn't have to stoop when she was chopping tomatillos for green salsa. She and Wade had made love in every room and on the deck and in the garage
"The turn is coming up," Ty said as he squinted toward the left side of the road.
"I know where it is." She checked on the safe house whenever she was in the area. It hadn't been occupied in months.
He took a water bottle from his gym bag, unscrewed the lid and poured a splash over a red bandana. Like Caleb, he tied the bandana across the lower half of his face.
She couldn't stop herself from being Miss Know-It-All. "The fire marshal says the weave of a cotton bandana isn't fine enough to prevent ash particles from getting through."
"Don't care," he said. "The wetness makes breathing easier. Here's the turnoff."
After a quick left, she drove on a one-lane road that ascended a rugged slope. The safe house clung to the side of a granite cliff and faced away from the road. If she hadn't known where she was going, Sam would never have found this place amid the rocks and trees.
When she exited her vehicle, the smoke swirled around her ankles in a thick miasma. From the wraparound porch of the house, she and Ty had a clear view of the wildfire.
The blaze danced across the upper edge of a hogback ridge. With the sun going down, the billowing clouds of smoke turned an angry red. It looked like the gates of hell. A chopper flew over the leaping flames and dropped a load of retardant on the forest.
She watched as Ty wandered around to the side of the house toward the long attached garage. "Looking for something?"
"I'm being thorough."
She noticed his hand resting on his belt near his holster, ready to make a quick draw. What was making him so suspicious? "Is there something I should know about?"
He joined her on the porch. "Long as I'm here, I might as well look around inside."
His fingers hovered over a keypad outside the front door. He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Do you happen to ?"
"Remember the code to deactivate the alarm?" She grinned and rattled off six digits. The Swain County sheriff always had the code. When the alarm went off, it rang through to her office, and she had to come up here to turn it off.
Before she could follow Ty inside, her cell phone rang. It was the fire marshala call she needed to take. As she answered, she signaled to Ty to go ahead without her.
"Marshal Hobbs," she said, "what can you tell me?"
"The fire is mostly contained." His voice was raspy. Sore throats must be an occupational hazard. "You won't need to evacuate the town, especially not if it rains tonight like it's supposed to."
"That's the good news," she said. "What's the bad?"
"Well, Sheriff, I've got a favor to ask. The chopper pilot spotted three hikers on the road by Horny Toad Creek. I can't spare the men to pick them up. Could you take care of it?"
"No problem," she assured him. "I happen to be in that area right now. How do you know they're hikers?"
"The pilot said they were wearing backpacks. You know the look."
"I sure do. Keep me posted on the fire."
When Ty came out of the safe house, she waved him over to her SUV and told him about the hikers who needed a pickup. "I can't imagine any sensible reason they'd hike near a wildfire. These guys must be thrill-seekers or morons."
"Or reporters," Ty said.
She'd had her fill of reporters after Wade's death. They wouldn't leave her alone, constantly pestered her for interviews or photos of her and Jenny. All she ever wanted was to grieve in private. But Wade's accident was news.
One year and twenty-one days ago, he'd gone bow hunting with Ty and two other feds, including Ty's boss, Everett Hurtado. A kayaker on the river had lost control in the rapids, and Wade had jumped into the frigid waters to rescue him. The kayaker had survived. Wade had been swept away by the white water. His body had never been found.
As Sam started the engine in her SUV, dark thoughts gnawed at the edge of her mind. She had plenty of things to worry about: the fire, the hikers, the lack of ventilation masks and Ty's "important" news. But she could never escape the pain and the sorrow that had taken up permanent residence inside her. She'd never forget the loss of her husband. He was her soul mate, her dearest lover and best friend.
As she drove along the road that followed the twists and turns of the creek, she turned her head toward Ty. Might as well get this over with. "What's this important thing you want to tell me?"
"You know, Sam, I can hardly look at you without thinking of Wade."
"Back at you, Ty. You were one of his best friends. You grew up together." She guided the SUV into a more open area that deviated from the path of the creek. "Is this important message about Wade?"
"How do you feel about him? Are you, maybe, looking at other men?"
"Hell no." There was no other man, and there never would be. She only had room in her heart for Jenny and for Wade.
The road straightened out. The right side was a field behind a barbed-wire fence. To the left, a gently rising hillside climbed into a thick, old growth forest. If the fire got this far, these hills would go up like dry tinder.
Ty cleared his throat. "I was just thinking."
"If you're going to say that it's time to move on, that I should get out there in the world and start dating, forget it. Don't you dare tell me how to grieve."
He pointed across the windshield to the left side of the road. "Over there."
In the shadow of a tall cottonwood, she spotted a dark green sedan that apparently had gone across the shoulder and run into the shrubs, rocks and trees at the side of the road. She parked behind it. "Maybe our three hikers came from that car."
"Makes sense," Ty said. "Maybe they had an accident and are trying to walk back to civilization. But why didn't we see them on the road? Why would they go toward the fire?"
She left the SUV and went to investigate. The green sedan blended into the trees and shrubs, which was why the helicopter pilot hadn't noticed it. She saw the outline of a man's head and shoulders behind the steering wheel.
He wasn't moving.