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The moment Sheriff Cooper McKinnon stepped through the hospital's emergency room doors, he spotted the woman running toward him. Not hurrying. Flat-out running.
He'd only known the running woman, Jessa Wells, for a few months now. Since she'd moved to Sweetwater Springs to take the job as the town's assistant district attorney. A move that continued to be a thorn in Cooper's professional and personal sides.
Like the woman herself.
But that wasn't a thorny look she was giving Cooper now. She was a mess.
Her light brown hair was tangled on her shoulders, and there were small nicks and cuts on her face. White powder from a car's deployed air bag was clinging like dust to her already pale gray skirt and top. Everything about her expression was an emotion he knew all too well.
Remembering that fear, and the panic, it felt as if someone had just punched him in the gut. Mercy. Despite his feelings about Jessa, Cooper prayed her situation turned out better than his.
One lost child was enough.
"Hurry," Jessa insisted, catching his arm and practically dragging him out of the E.R. waiting room and into a side corridor. "Dr. Howland's ready to draw your blood."
She was ashy palethe only spots of color were those wide blue eyes. Desperate eyes.
Yet something else Cooper understood.
"It's my son," she said, though he didn't know how she managed to speak with her breath gusting like that. She was dragging in air through her mouth at a much too fast rate.
"Yeah. When the doctor called me, he said your boy, Liam, was two years old and that he'd been hurt."
Jessa managed a shaky nod. "We were in a car accident. Someone sideswiped me." She gave a hoarse groan. "And his spleen ruptured. I didn't even know that could happen to a toddler."
Lots of bad things could happen to babies and toddlers, and Cooper wished he didn't know that firsthand.
She threw open the door to an examining room. Not an empty one, but there was no sign of her son inside. Just Dr. Howland, his nurse Tammy Karnes and a table set up for Cooper to give blood.
Other than the panicked mother and the feeling of urgency, this was familiar ground for Cooper, since Dr. Howland often called him to donate blood. This was a first, howevera child who might literally die without it.
"Thanks for coming so fast," Dr. Howland greeted.
The doc looked every day of his sixty-plus years this morning. Heaven knew how many life-and-death situations like this he'd faced over his long career as a smalltown doctor. How many babies he'd delivered.
Heck, he'd delivered Cooper and his two brothers and had saved them a time or two over their years as law enforcement officers. He hoped the doc could do the same for Jessa's little boy.
Cooper took off his Stetson and got on the table, his belt holster and gun clattering against the metal side. The nurse didn't waste any time swabbing his finger. All routine. She jabbed it to get the drops of blood that she needed for a quick test to make sure he wasn't too anemic to donate. While she scurried away to do that, the doctor rubbed his arm with antiseptic and inserted the needle.
The wait began.
It wouldn't be long, but it would no doubt seem like a lifetime to Jessa. She stood at the end of the table, her gaze firing all around, mumbling a prayer under her breath.
The door flew open and the nurse hurried back in. "We're good to go."
That was the only green light the doctor needed, because he turned on the machine and got Cooper's blood flowing into the collection bag. It seemed the doctor was collecting a lot for a toddler, but maybe it was necessary if Jessa's son had lost a lot of blood.
"I was so thankful when Dr. Howland told me you were a match for Liam," Jessa said.
Or rather that was what she tried to say. Her voice cracked, and that too-fast breath caught up with her. Obviously it'd made her light-headed, and she wobbled enough for the doctor to reach out and take hold of her. Dr. Howland tried to move her to the chair in the corner of the room, but Jessa frantically shook her head and stayed put.
"We're lucky," the doctor added. "AB negative is the rarest blood type."
What the doctor didn't say was what he'd told Cooper when he called him. That if Cooper hadn't been nearby, just up the street at the sheriff's office, then Jessa's son would have had a much slimmer chance of pulling through this injury.
"I know you hate me," Jessa mumbled. She blinked, but there were no tears. They would no doubt come once the shock wore off. "But thank you for doing this. Thank you:"
Cooper didn't disagree with the hate part, though he probably should have tried to play nice. But he couldn't. Jessa was in shock and panicky now, but the bottom line was that she was trying to destroy his family. And him specifically.
Too bad she was doing it legally.
"I heard your mother's coming back to town," Dr. Howland tossed out there, casting an uneasy glance first at Jessa. Then at Cooper. The nurse, Tammy Karnes, made some uneasy glances of her own.
Because this was a powder keg of a subject. One that Cooper couldn't dodge since he was confined to the table with a captive audience. However, he didn't have to blab his head off about the details, either.
"Yeah, she's coming back," Cooper confirmed. Jewell McKinnon was indeed returning to Sweetwater Springs after being gone for twenty-three years.
It would not be a happy homecoming, and that was a massive understatement.
"Well, I'll try to get you out of here as fast as I can," the doctor assured him. "So you can be home when she arrives."
"No need for fast." Cooper didn't have a firm time for his mother's arrival, and nobody in his immediate family was pushing for one. Not even Jewell herself, since she was trying to make travel arrangements not just for Cooper's twin sisters but also for her stepson.
For support, no doubt.
Good thing, too, since Jewell wasn't likely to get any support from the now ex-husband and the three sons she'd abandoned.
"Besides," Cooper went on, "Jessa here has plans to have Jewell hauled off to jail as soon as her feet land on Sweetwater Springs's soil. She'd have me hauled off, too, if she could ever find proof that I stonewalled this investigation and tampered with evidence. Since I didn't do those things, there's no proof for her to find."
"Someone tampered with that crime scene and the box of evidence," she mumbled.
Yeah. Someone had. Cooper had seen the photos, and someone had tried to do a cleanup. But it sure as heck hadn't been him. He'd been just a kid at the time of that crime scene.
As for the evidence, well, there was something missing, all right, including the collection log. So they didn't even know what'd been taken.
Again, not his doing.
"I figure Jewell will go straight to the county sheriff's office and just turn herself in to the deputy there," Cooper clarified. At least that was what he was hoping she'd do, so it would prevent Cooper and his family from having to deal with her.
For the time being, anyway.
Jessa nodded, and despite the terror that she was no doubt feeling, he could see her slip into her assistant district attorney mode. "Your mother murdered a man, and even though the body wasn't found, there's enough evidence left to confirm it was murder. She has to pay for that."
Yes, there was enough evidence. Blood. Fitting, since that was what had brought him to Jessa today. It could save a life, but with the large quantities found at the crime scene, it meant the loss of life.
In this case, it did indeed mean murder.
That wouldn't have concerned him so much if the murder charges hadn't brought Jewell back into their lives. Where the old wounds and memories would rip at his whole family. Especially his father, who could end up being implicated in this old crime, as well. He could thank Jessa for that and her vendetta-like investigation that had brought them to this.
Well, not to the hospital.
No way had she counted on something like this interfering with her plans to arrest a woman for a twenty-three-year-old murder.
"Ironic, huh?" Cooper said, looking at Jessa. "Of all the blood in Texas, your son's had to match mine?"
"Yes," Jessa quietly agreed. No more professional facade. "I wish I'd matched, but I didn't. And there wasn't time to try to track down his birth parents. Liam needs a transfusion now." She paused, shook her head. "I'm sorry if this brings back any bad memories for you."
They weren't talking about Jewell now but his late son, Cameron. Something Cooper damn sure didn't want to discuss with Jessa. But he'd never had any luck fighting back those bad memories.
He didn't have luck with it now, either.
As his blood flowed into the bag, the memories flowed, too. First of the storm nearly two years ago. Such a small, ordinary thing that'd had life-changing consequences. His wife, Molly, had driven Cameron into town for his six-week checkup and his shots. Molly had been dreading those. Cooper, too. He'd planned to meet them at the clinic so they could hold each other's hands and get through yet something else that was supposed to be routine.
Then the storm got worse.
The floodwaters came.
And in the exact moment that Molly's car had reached the Stone Creek bridge, it'd washed out.
Taking Cameron and Molly with it.
Cooper squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push away the images. Finally, he gave up and let them bash at him like angry waves, punching into him until he wasn't sure if it was blood or ice being drawn from him.
He hadn't been able to say goodbye to his son. Hadn't been able to bury him. Because his body had never been found.
Her lifeless body had been found in the creek. Now she had a grave with an empty space next to it, and there were days, like now, when Cooper had to fight hard not to wish he was in that ground beside her.
"Done," the nurse said, and Dr. Howland took the blood bags and hurried out. Jessa was right behind him.
The nurse eased the needle from his arm and positioned a bandage over the puncture before she attempted to help Cooper to his feet. But he waved her off. He'd never gotten dizzy after a donation, and the only thing he wanted to do was get the heck out of there.
Of course, that meant making plans to face Jewell, her stepson and Cooper's fraternal twin sisters, whom Jewell had taken with her when she left the ranch. Funny that seeing his estranged mother now seemed a better option than staying here with these memories eating away at him.
Cooper pulled down his shirtsleeve and went out the door, only to find Jessa there, pacing and looking ready to explode.
"Dr. Howland said I had to wait here," she blurted out.
Man, her voice was trembling all over, and for a moment he considered offering her a shoulder, but then he thought better of it. With their bad feelings for each other, even a genuine shoulder offer would seem hollow.
"Once your boy gets the blood, he should be all right," Cooper told her. It wasn't much of a reassurance. Heck, it might not even be true, but it was something he would have wanted her to say to him if their situations had been reversed.
"I can't do this." She was past the frantic stage now, and the tears came.
He really didn't want to deal with this, and looked around for someone to take over comfort duty. Of course, there was no one else. Any other day, there would have been all sorts of people milling around. But apparently the fates had it in for Jessa and him today.
"Where's your son?" Cooper asked, hoping that by talking she wouldn't shatter into a million little pieces. It'd worked in the collection room when she had slipped into her district attorney mode for a couple of seconds.
She pointed to the room behind her. Surgery. Well, that explained why Jessa hadn't been allowed in.
"How strong's your stomach?" he asked.
Jessa blinked, clearly not expecting him to ask that. "At the moment not very strong, but if you're asking if I want to see my son in surgery, I do."
He was afraid she'd say that, but since he had already walked out on this limb, Cooper kept right on walking. He led her farther down the hall and into a room with a set of stairs.
"There's an observation deck," he explained. "They bring in medical students sometimes."
And sometimes he'd used it to check on the status of a perp or a victim who'd been injured. Cooper had stood right in that very spot to watch Doc Howland dig a bullet from his brother's chest. That had turned out all right.
Maybe the same would happen today.
Jessa hurried to the glass, her breath instantly fogging it. Her son was indeed on the table, though Cooper couldn't see much of him because of the green sea of scrubs surrounding him. Cooper's blood was there, already flowing into the boy.
Man, he looked so little.
Hardly more than a baby.
"The surgeon seems to be finishing up," Cooper told her. "Everything looks good."
Well, the machines were all beeping and doing the right thing. That had to be good. Ditto for the fact that no one appeared to be in panic mode. Except for Jessa, that was. Even Dr. Howland was standing near the surgeon, just calmly watching.
"I can never thank you enough," she repeated.
And just like that, she came at him, and despite how he felt about the woman, it was the terrified mother whom he put his arms around.
"You don't have to thank me." Cooper tried to ease her away, but she stayed put. Pressed against him.
This wasn't a man-woman thing, but maybe because he was so raw from the memories, he got another punch of feelings that he didn't want to have. Jessa was attractive, and his stupid body didn't let him overlook that. When Cooper felt that too-familiar curl of heat go through him, he untangled himself from her and stepped back.
Getting involved with a convicted felon would cause him less trouble than getting involved with this woman.
Jessa didn't seem shocked that he'd pushed her away. Only a little embarrassed that she'd sought out comfort from him in the first place. She snapped back to the window, her gaze fastened to her son.
"What are the odds that you'd be here right when Liam needed you?" he heard her say.
A different kind of uneasy feeling went through him.
Yeah, what were the odds?
Cooper tried to stop any crazy thoughts from flying through his head, but he failed at that, too. He was failing at a lot of things today.
"How old did you say your son is?" he asked.
"And his birthday?"