Still angry over the death of the woman he loved, rancher Marshall Boyer wants nothing to do with women or love. But when the mysterious Emma drops into his life—barefoot, broke, and running scared—he can’t let her go.
Artist Emmaline Katz has a dangerous secret. After escaping a ruthless criminal who exploited her for years, her quest for freedom crashes to a halt in rural Montana. Out of money and options, she finds an unlikely haven with a handsome cowboy. But no matter how much she wants to believe his offer of protection, he doesn’t know the truth about her, her secret, or the man who will stop at nothing to get her back.
Time is running out. A cold-blooded killer has come to town, and Emma isn’t the only target.
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Nothing moved quickly in Absolution, Montana, which was just fine. No need to fix what wasn't broke. Yet, despite the town's inability to function at anything but a leisurely pace, there was still the occasional need to arrive when you said you would — something Marshall Boyer's brother never seemed to be able to accomplish no matter what the task.
"For a lawman, you sure have a terrible sense of time," Marshall grumped as he climbed into the passenger seat of the white pickup truck.
His brother, Danny, gunned the engine and cranked the wheel, spinning the back end around in the gravel. "You in that much hurry to move a piano?"
Marshall pulled his hat lower on his head, blocking the glare of the setting sun. "Not particularly."
Truth be told, he wasn't the least bit concerned. Old Esther Wilkin's piano would remain right where it was until they got there — be it tonight, tomorrow, or next week — with no bother as to when or why. But throwing jabs at his brother never required a schedule, and it was one of the few things that seemed to give Marshall any real sense of fun these days.
He leaned closer to the passenger window, letting the warm evening air tease his cheek. Backed by the distant mountains, a hawk glided in lazy, looping circles over the open field. The land beside him blurred by in a wash of colors, familiar sights he could describe with his eyes closed, their memories powered by the hundreds of times he'd followed the same series of turns over the potholed back roads toward town.
The ranch had been in the Boyer name since their adventurous great- great-great-granddaddy left the civilized east for the wild west. Every building on the property had been built with sweat and blood. Every inch had history. Every piece of furniture, a story. Just how a home should be.
If only it still felt that way.
He took a deep breath, using the scents of pine trees and meadow flowers to remind himself where he was. Even after being back for close to a year, there were still times when he expected to wake up to the stale, dead sights and rotting smells of the big city. A concrete jungle, they called it; a concrete cesspool was more like it. People and buildings piled on top of each other in a never-ending sea of colorless gray towers.
God, how he'd hated it there. But he'd done it for her. Michelle. He'd given up the home he loved for the woman he loved. Now one was dead and the other would never be the same.
"Dad wants me to find out if you're coming to the Stellars' barbecue next weekend," Danny said.
Marshall eyed the shrinking farmhouse through the side-view mirror, its outline barely visible through the cloud of gravel dust following them. He'd spent the better part of the day with his father in the north pasture removing a fallen tree and repairing the damage done to a section of fence line. The old man hadn't mentioned a thing about a barbecue.
"Didn't feel like asking me himself?"
"Said he didn't want you to think he was forcing you." Danny shifted his grip on the steering wheel. "Look, Marsh, he's just worried about you. You aren't exactly social these days."
Marshall glared at the passing tree line. "I'm fine."
"It's been a year. Just because she's dead doesn't mean you need to be."
One year, two months, and seventeen days to be exact.
Not that he was counting.
Memories of Michelle bubbled up, dragging all the unwanted emotions along with them. He stomped the uninvited feelings back into their grave. "There's nothing wrong with how I am," he snapped. "I'm perfectly happy."
After a lengthy pause, Danny shook his head. "Yeah, I can see that. All smiles and buttercups, you are. The epitome of cheeriness. I swear, if you were any happier, you'd break out in song."
Marshall glowered at his brother. "Fuck off."
Danny's boisterous laughter grated on Marshall's nerves with the level of annoyance only a younger brother could generate. The more Marshall tried to project his anger, the louder Danny hooted. It was annoying as hell.
The ability to disarm with a smile had been Danny's saving grace since they were kids. They caused just as much trouble as a duo, but Danny's part in the mess was always forgiven the moment he flashed his pearly whites and sweet-talked his way out of purgatory. Marshall had never been that lucky. Danny would get a pat on the head, and Marshall would get the long list of chores — punishment for whatever ill- begotten scheme he'd "dragged" his poor younger brother into. Never mattered that most of the time the shenanigans hadn't even been his idea to start with.
"So, can I tell Dad you'll be at the barbecue, then?" Danny asked once he'd managed to calm himself down to a snicker.
"I have a choice?"
"Fine. But no guarantee how long I'll stay."
"Afraid you might actually have a good time?"
"It's the same thing every year. Mrs. Doan will bring that marshmallow surprise no one eats. Mr. Humphrees will get drunk on 'shine and be throwing up before dinner. The Sharron twins will start a fight sometime during the dance, and sparks from the fireworks will light the hay bales on fire, ending the evening with a bang."
"You make it sound like a bad time."
"You attend one Stellar barbecue, you attend 'em all. Nothing in this town changes, and that's just fine with — "
"Shit!" Danny slammed on the brakes.
Marshall slapped his palm against the dash to counter the truck's abrupt deceleration.
The dust cloud following them swirled past, filling the cab with a gritty brown haze. The wind carried it off, revealing a path of destruction carved through the tall grass along the side of the road. Flattened plants and muddy tire tracks pointed an unmistakable trail straight through a gap in two freshly broken fences to a little blue car sitting crookedly in the riverbank muck at the bottom of the hill.
Beside the car stood a woman dressed so brightly she resembled a parrot. The crazy color scheme of purple pants, orange floral top, and a giant sunhat covered in daisies could only be the wild stylings of Mrs. Georgina Hackett, Absolution's oldest, and quite possibly craziest, resident.
"I thought she wasn't allowed to drive ..."
"She's not." Danny put the truck into park and reached for the radio mic sitting in the console. "Hey, Alice. Looks like Georgie Hackett got out of the home again. Whoever's car she borrowed is sitting in the creek at the bottom of Miller's Hill. Doesn't look like it's in too deep, though. Give Bobby a call, would ya? We'll need his tow. And call Sunset Retirement. If they're looking for Georgie, tell 'em we have her."
"Will do, Sheriff," the dispatcher answered.
Marshall joined his brother for the walk down to the riverbank.
Georgie lifted a bottle of bourbon from the trunk. She twisted the cap off, saluted them with the bottle, then took a big swig.
Danny gently relieved her of the alcohol and threaded the cap back on. "Evenin', Georgie. Everything all right?" He set the bottle back into the trunk.
"Well, if it isn't the Boyer boys." She straightened her hat and smiled widely. "How's your father? I haven't seen him since the bake sale last month."
"He's good, he's good," Danny answered. "How about you? That's quite the parking job you have here. Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Be better if you'd give me back my bourbon, though." When he didn't comply, she flickered her gnarled fingers in a dismissive wave. "Keep it. I have more."
Marshall closed the driver's door and placed his hand on the still- warm hood. The car hadn't been here long. He leaned out over the murky creek to get a look at the front end. The bumper was puckered and gouged from plowing through the fence boards, and the grille — or what was left of it — was plastered in wet grass and weeds. "Car's quite a mess, Georgie. You sure you're okay?"
"I said I was fine," she said with a huff.
"Well, now, you did take out two fences." Danny pointed out the wide path of destruction running back up the hill.
She waggled her finger at him. "Now don't you start with me, Danny Boyer. You know damn well I'm a perfectly fine driver. Judge Farrington was just mad I beat his wife at bridge when he took my license."
Danny bobbed his head. "Be sure to tell him that when you explain how you ended up in the creek."
She waved at the top of the rise. "If you'd have seen him, you'd have done gone off the road, too. Just standing there in the middle like he owned the place. Antlers bigger than a house!"
"Deer?" Marshall asked.
Georgie bobbled her head back and forth. "Oh, heavens, no. A moose! I haven't seen a moose this close to town in years. Not since I was a little girl. Watched us go by like he was serving a Sunday sermon, he was! Had to swerve to avoid him, of course. Good thing Miller has two fences up or we might not have stopped in time."
"We?" Danny repeated sharply, glancing at Marshall.
Marshall leaned in through the open driver's window, knowing full well he wasn't going to find anything or anyone inside but going through the motions, anyway. Georgie's mind and mouth were as colorful as her clothing. She often talked to people who weren't there, told stories about things she couldn't possibly have seen, and was a master escape artist even though the retirement home had a lockdown ward.
True to his expectation, there was nothing in the car except Georgie's handbag. He retrieved the colorful purse and handed it to her.
Georgie slipped the straps over her arm. "Etta May and I were on our way back from bingo. Won fifty dollars in the bonus round."
Danny hooked her hand through the crook of his arm. He patted her fingers and started walking her slowly back to his truck. "Now, Georgie, we all know Etta May's been gone and buried for a while now."
While she argued that she, too, had been surprised to see her dead daughter sitting in the bingo hall parking lot in Pikes Falls, Marshall closed the trunk and followed along after them. A flash of movement beneath the trees caught his eye.
With a snapping crunch of branches, a massive bull moose stepped out from behind a tight cluster of pine trees. The great beast twisted his head side to side, rotating his antlers in a swooping arc.
"Well, I'll be ..." There had been a moose! He took a few steps closer, pausing to admire the sheer size and strength of the beast. Damn, he's a beaut!
The creature stared at him for a long moment, then exhaled a sneezing snort before lumbering back into the shadowed protection of the forest.
It was a hell of a bit of luck Georgie hit the fence instead, or the results would have been deadly. Contemplating the little blue car's chances of survival against a thousand pounds of bull moose, he glanced over his shoulder and cursed in surprise to see a dark-haired woman sitting cross- legged in the watery muck a few feet away.
He shouted for Danny and hurried toward her.
Half hidden by the reeds, she was staring off into the distance, massaging her forehead with her fingertips. The lower half of her yellow dress was a muddy mess, layered in leaves and thistle pickers. She had no visible cuts, but the angry red bump on her temple was going to leave her with quite a headache.
He squatted beside her.
Eyes as rich and green as a summer field flecked with sun-kissed gold blinked up at him. He'd never come across such a color combination before. It was downright hypnotizing. He started to ask her name, but when she gently placed her palm against the side of his face, his voiced stopped working. Her skin was icy, but the warm undercurrent of energy she left behind as she trailed her fingertips across the side of his jaw sent a wave of goose bumps down his arms. Then she showed him a wide, bright, happy-to-see-you smile that damn near had him grinning like an idiot himself.
"It's you," she said softly.
He had a sudden, warring conversation with his inner devil that if he'd met the lovely lady somewhere before, he must have been one hell of a dumb-ass drunk to have blocked her out, because he was damn sure that dead sober, he wasn't about to forget her ever again.
When her smile faded, it was like losing the sun behind a cloud full of rain. She lowered her hand, dropping his reality back into the wet muck of the riverbed he was crouched in.
What the hell was he doing? He needed to help her, not stare at her like he'd never seen a pretty gal before.
Confusion left a tiny furrow on her forehead. Wincing, she scrunched her nose. "My head hurts."
Danny squatted beside him. "Is she all right?"
"Just a knock on the head, far as I can tell." Marshall moved a lock of her hair aside to get a better look at the lump on her temple. He had to fight off the urge to twist the soft, dark curl between his fingers.
"She's fine," Georgie called out. "She's a Hackett. We breed 'em tough."
"I'm sorry," the lady in yellow mumbled. "I don't ... I don't feel very well." She leaned to the side to look up at Danny, but her eyes fluttered closed and she kept on falling.
Marshall had her up in his arms before she could hit the water.CHAPTER 2
When Emmaline Katz opened her eyes to a beige-painted ceiling, she was curious over why Alan would have painted it a different color. It had been white for years — why change it now? And how would he have done it without her knowing, since she never left the apartment?
She rolled her head and puzzled at the strange decor. The furniture, the placement of everything in the space around her was so foreign, it took her several seconds of confused blinking before she realized it was not her room.
Fear ran through her limbs, jerking her up out of the bed. The blanket fought her, trapping the lower half of her body. Kicking at the material, she broke free and tumbled awkwardly to the floor. She scrambled to her feet, bashing her hip against the wooden table next to the bed, toppling a small lamp.
A hulking shape moved beside her.
Her fearful projection of Alan's angry face faded away to reveal the cherry-red cheeks and bulbous nose of —
Every picture, every sketch, every watercolor she'd ever created of the Christmas hero had been an exact replica of the white-bearded, rosy- cheeked man in round-rimmed glasses who was standing in front of her, his blue eyes crinkled with a touch of amusement.
"Well, that was quite a wake-up," he said cheerfully. He righted the lamp and adjusted its position back into the center of the small table.
Frozen against the wall, she glanced around, her ribs aching from the fierce pounding of her heart. She was alone in a room with Santa, and what a room it was! She couldn't decide if it was trying to be an office, a medical exam room, or a guest room. The walls had eye charts and health diagrams, and the shelves were stocked with bandages and other medical supplies, but the windows had real curtains and the rustic wooden furniture was torn straight from the pages of a country-living magazine. It even had a real bed.
She cleared her throat and tried her best to sound more confident than she felt. "Where am I?"
"Why, my clinic, of course."
"Oh. Yes. Dear me. I guess I'm so used to everyone knowing who I am, it's an oddity to meet someone who doesn't." He leaned into his laugh and extended his hand. "I'm Liam. Liam Horvath. Or like most folks round these parts, you can call me Doc."
She stared at his outstretched hand, unwilling and unable to remove her fingernails from the wallpaper they were clawed against. "Doc?"
"That's right. And what should I call you?" He pulled his hand back and pushed his round-rimmed glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.
The question shot a renewed sense of fear straight down her spine. Her throat tightened, and she swallowed past the dry scratch. She knew her name. Had the order of the letters sitting on the tip of her tongue. But the action that would allow her to say it to another human being was frozen straight through to her soul.
Words had consequences. Deadly consequences.
"I have to call you something," he prompted.
Curling her fingers into fists, she tried her best not to look as terrified as she felt. Alan hated weakness. She'd learned over the years to hide it deep inside, along with her voice. Stay quiet, stay silent. Don't speak until spoken to, and they'll forget you exist.
"Emmaline," she croaked, biting her bottom lip before she could blurt out the rest. Katz was an unusual last name. Too easy for someone to remember. She struggled to find a better one. Smith? Johnson? She should probably have something plain. Ordinary. Forgettable.
The elderly doctor solved the dilemma for her. "Well, it's certainly very nice to meet you, Miss Emma Leen."
She started to correct him but caught herself. As a name, Emma Leen would do perfectly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Devil's Way Out"
Copyright © 2019 Nika Dixon.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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