First, someone tries to kill him. Then an achingly familiar beauty from his past drops the bombshell of a lifetime: he has a son. Two years ago, sheriff Jericho Crockett's attraction to Laurel Tate became a brief but intense affairuntil an unsolved murder made them enemies. Now, with their son's life hanging in the balance, the Texas lawman must put aside the pain of Laurel's long-held secret in order to keep the little boy safe. But as working together causes powerful feelings to resurface, Jericho isn't about to walk away from being a father to his son and maybe even a husband to Laurel.
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Sheriff Jericho Crockett didn't have time to react. The SUV flew out from the side road and slammed right into the side of his truck.
The jolt was instant, tossing him around, and the seat belt snapped like a vise across Jericho's body. It knocked the breath out of him and dazed him for a couple of seconds.
He couldn't say the same for the driver of the SUV.
No dazed moments for the person behind that heavily tinted windshield. The driver backed up a few yards and came at Jericho again. This time, the front end of the SUV collided with his pickup's engine and then pulled back before coming onto the main road behind Jericho.
Much to Jericho's surprise, the guy didn't bolt. The SUV stayed put, the driver revving up the engine as if it were some kind of wild animal on the verge of pouncing for an attack.
What the hell was going on here?
Was someone trying to kill him? Or at least put him in the hospital? Jericho wasn't about to let either of those things happen. He drew his Smith & Wesson from his waist holster and threw open his door.
The blast of December air came right at him, spiking a chill in him that went bone deep. But the cold didn't stop him. Jericho leaned out just enough so that he'd still have some cover but so this clown would see his gun.
What Jericho still couldn't do was get a glimpse of the person inside. Of course, the darkness didn't help. Nor did the fact that the driver didn't even have on his headlights.
"I'm Sheriff Crockett!" Jericho shouted. "Get out of your vehicle now!"
Since this crazy attack had come out of the blue, Jericho wasn't sure what to expect, but he braced himself in case someone in that SUV tried to take shots at him.
But that didn't happen.
The SUV came at him again, slamming into the back of his truck and causing Jericho's arm and shoulder to bash against the steering wheel. He held on to his gun, thank God, and he used it. Jericho sent two bullets into the SUV's engine, but they ricocheted off. Obviously, it'd been reinforced in some kind of way, because the front fender wasn't even crushed.
"The next shot goes through the windshield," Jericho warned him. Easier than putting bullets through metal, anyway. "And right into you."
The warning must have worked because this time the guy didn't crash into him. The driver threw the SUV into Reverse and hit the accelerator, the tires kicking up smoke and stench as they squealed away.
Since this was a farm road, less than a quarter of a mile from Jericho's family ranch, there wasn't much traffic, but he didn't want an innocent bystander hit by someone who was either drunk or just plain dangerous. He was more than ready to go after the idiot, but the spewing steam from his engine stopped him. The radiator had probably been busted in the collision, and he wasn't going to get far. Best to try to get to the ranch and regroup.
Cursing, Jericho took out his phone and pressed his brother's number. Jax, who was a deputy and still at work, answered on the first ring.
"I think somebody just tried to kill me," Jericho said instead of a greeting. He eased his foot down on the accelerator, hoping the truck would make it home.
"Again?" Jax asked. It wasn't exactly a smart-mouthed question. Earlier in the day, Jericho had been shot at during a domestic dispute. Now, this.
"A black SUV rammed into me three times, tore up my truck and then drove off. Run the plates for me." Jericho rattled off the license numbers, and he heard the clicks his brother was making on the computer keyboard back at the sheriff's office in the nearby town of Appaloosa Pass.
"You okay?" Jax sounded considerably more concerned with this question than his last one.
"I'm fine." Well, except for what would no doubt be a god-awful bruise on his shoulder. It was already throbbing like a toothache.
"The plates aren't registered," Jax provided a moment later. "They're bogus."
Of course they were. "Find this moron and arrest his sorry butt. Once I'm at my house, I'll get another vehicle and help you look for him."
"I can handle this. No need for you"
"I'll be there," Jericho insisted, and he ended the call.
Well, there went his plans for a quiet night. Dinner and sleep. Maybe not even in that order since he was fully spent after pulling a twelve-hour shift. But apparently his shift wasn't over. Yes, his brother could handle this. Jax could handle pretty much anything when it came to a lawman's work. But this was personal, and that meant Jericho would have his hands in it.
The truck engine continued to chug and spew steam, but he was finally able to reach his place. Thankfully, it was at the front of the ranch property, the house that'd once belonged to his great-aunt and -uncle.
Jericho kept watch around him, just in case the bad-driving nut job returned, and he hurried up the back steps and into his kitchen so he could get the keys for his spare truck. He instantly spotted the note taped to his door.
"'I put up a tree for you. Love, Mom,'" he read aloud.
He automatically scowled. He wasn't much of a Christmas person. Definitely didn't put up treeseven though Christmas was only two days away. But he made a mental note to thank his mother, anyway.
Jericho stepped inside and cursed again once he turned on the lights and noticed the blood on his shirt.
Then, on his shoulder.
He peeled off his jacket and cowboy hat, dropping them on the table, and after he removed his badge, he sent the shirt flying straight toward the washer in the adjoining laundry room. It wasn't a deep cut, barely a nick, but it was bleeding enough that he'd need a bandage.
Jericho made it one step into the living room when he heard someone moving around.
And he put down his badge and drew his gun.
Great day in the morning, had the idiot in the SUV gotten here ahead of him?
"Jericho," a woman said. Her voice was a whisper.
He picked through the dark room and located her. Right next to a Christmas tree with all the trimmings. Even though he could barely see the brunette sitting on his sofa, he knew exactly who she was.
She wasn't the very last person on earth that he would have expected to see in his house, but it was close. Jericho hadn't laid eyes on Laurel in over two years, since she'd moved from her father's nearby ranch to Dallas where she was supposed to run one of her family's businesses.
A shady one, no doubt.
Which pretty much described all her family's businesses.
Heck, Jericho's nights with her had been shady of a different sort since she was hands off. But those nights had been memorable, as well. He wasn't very happy about that. Wasn't happy about giving in to this scalding heat that'd always been between them.
Much to his disgust.
"Nice tree," she remarked. "Your mother's doing?"
"Really? I doubt this visit is about Christmas trees. Or my mother. Why are you here?" he growled. "And how'd you get in?"
She fluttered her fingers toward the back door. "It wasn't locked, and I had to see you, alone, so I didn't want to go to your office," Laurel said, as if that explained everything.
It didn't explain squat. "Well, you can use that same unlocked door to let yourself out. I don't have time for a visit."
Laurel got to her feet. Slowly. Her cool blue eyes fastened to him. Not just on his face, either. Her gaze slid over his upper body, reminding him that he was bleeding and shirtless. Jericho hoped it was the blood that caused her breath to go all shivery like that, because he wasn't the least bit interested in having her react to his body.
They were enemies now. But lovers once.
Okay, not just once.
They'd been sixteen when they'd first discovered sex together, in this very house the summer he'd been staying at the place when his great-aunt and -uncle had been away. Jericho had actually discovered sex a year earlier with the cute cheerleader whose name he couldn't remember, but he'd been Laurel's first. A first had turned to a second, third and so on until his father's murder two years later.
Things had changed big-time between them then.
Everything had changed.
But he damn sure remembered Laurel's name.
Every inch of her body, too. A reminder that Jericho told to take a hike.
"You're bleeding," she said.
"And you're leaving so I can take care of it." But then he got a bad thought. Really bad. "Did you have something to do with the guy in the SUV who ran into me? Let me rephrase that. Did your scummy father have anything to do with it?"
Because Laurel wasn't the sort to get her hands dirty. She just associated with the lowlifes who did.
Her eyes widened and she shook her head. "Someone tried to hurt you?" And yeah, it sounded like a genuine question from a concerned, surprised woman.
"Is your father responsible for my bloody shoulder and bashed-up truck?" he pressed.
It wouldn't have been Herschel Tate's MO to be so obvious. He was more a knife-to-the-back sort of guy. Too bad Jericho had never been able to pin any crimes on him. Especially one big crime.
The murder of Jericho's own father.
Twenty years later, the pain of that still cut him to the bone. And that pain spilled over onto Laurel because she'd refused to see the truth or help him put her murdering father behind bars.
"I don't think my father was involved with anything that happened to you tonight." Laurel shook her head again. "But I can't be positive."
Well, that was a firsthaving her admit that her precious daddy could do anything wrong. But Laurel didn't elaborate. She hurried past him, and for a moment Jericho thought she was leaving. Instead, she came back from the kitchen with some paper towels that she pressed to his shoulder.
Jericho eyed her. Her nursing attempt put her fingers in contact with his bare skin. "How'd you get here?" he snapped. "Did your father or somebody else drop you off?"
Though he couldn't imagine why Herschel would do that. The hatred Jericho felt for the man was mutual.
"No. My father doesn't know I'm here. No one does. I parked behind your barn."
Since he had a big driveway and side yard, there was only one reason to park behind the barn. To conceal the vehicle. Jericho couldn't think of a single good reason for her to do that, but since he was a cop, he could think of some bad ones.
"Start talking," he insisted.
Laurel didn't do that, though. She kept dabbing at the cut. And more. Now that she was this close to him, Jericho could see her bottom lip tremble a little. He could also see that the whites of her eyes had some red in them.
Had she been crying?
"Your hair's longer," she said, her breath hitting against his neck right next to the hair she was apparently noticing. "It suits you."
That earned her a flat stare, and to end the little touching session, Jericho snatched the paper towels from her. "Are you really here to chat about my infrequent trips to the barbershop?"
"No." She moved away from him, repeated her answer and tucked a strand of her own loose hair behind her ear. "But we need to talk."
"So you've said. Well, start talking. Jax is waiting on me to come back to the station so we can go after the guy who hit my truck."
Jericho made sure he sounded impatient enough. Because he was. But Laurel didn't seem to be in a hurry to start this conversation that he didn't exactly want to have. So, Jericho started it for her.
"If you're here on your father's behalfto try to make some kind of truce or deliver a threatI'm not in a truce-making or threat-listening kind of mood."
"It's not anything like that." Laurel paused, pulled in her breath. "It's about marriage."
Jericho went still. The woman sure knew how to keep him surprised. After all, Laurel was already married. Or at least she was supposed to be. But now that he had a better look at her left hand, she wasn't sporting a flashy diamond or a wedding band.
She followed his gaze to her ring finger and shook her head. "I didn't go through with the wedding. I called it off." Laurel looked up at him, clearly waiting, as if she expected him to ask why.
He'd rather eat a magazine of bullets first. But if the gossip was right, Laurel was supposed to be married to one of her father's rich lackey lawyers. Considering that she, too, was an equally rich lackey lawyer, it was no doubt a match made in some place other than heaven.
"Look, Laurel, like I keep saying, this isn't a good time"
The rest of what he was about to remind her just stopped there in his throat when she opened her hand, and Jericho saw the small blue stone. She'd obviously been holding it for a while, because there was a mark on her palm.
"You remember what this is?" she asked. Yeah, he did. And while it would seem petty to deny that, Jericho nearly went with petty. Nearly.
"It's the rock we found on the banks of Mercy Creek twenty years ago," he supplied.
"We went walking there after we, well, afterward." Laurel tipped her head toward the bedroom, to the very place where she'd lost her virginity to him. "We found the two rocks. They were almost identical in size, shape and color. We'd never seen rocks that color before, so we decided it was some kind of sign, maybe even good-luck charms."
Jericho couldn't remember if he'd paid his electric bill this month, but he remembered that twenty-year-old conversation with Laurel. Every blasted word of it. And he knew that silly teenage notions of signs and charms like that came with a price tag attached.
"You said we'd each keep one, and that this rock could be a marker of sorts. Payment for any favor down the road. Anything" Laurel added. "In all these years, I've never used it because we said it should be for something very important. And we'd know just how important it was because we'd used this marker."
Jericho nodded. "I figured that'd come more in the form of a favor, like buying you a horse or something.
Or if you needed me to whip somebody's butt for messing with you."
And then it hit him. What this visit might really be about. "You don't think we're going to make the same mistake again of having sex?" he asked.
"A mistake," she said under her breath. Not exactly an agreement, but Jericho couldn't quite put his finger on the tone in her voice. And he certainly didn't see a let's-have-sex look in her eyes.
Not exactly, anyway. Of course, when it came to Laurel and him, there was always heat. Unwanted heat. But heat nonetheless.
"No. I'm not here for that," she verified.
His body didn't exactly agree with that. Never did when it came to Laurel, but after that last fiasco together, Jericho had learned his lesson. Play with fire. Get burned. Or in their case, get burned bad, because for a couple of hours, it had made him forget her scummy family.
And Jericho had paid for it.
Hell, he was still paying.
It was a good reminder because it made Jericho realize it was time for Laurel to leave. However, before he could even point to the door again, Laurel took his hand and put the rock in it.
"I do need a favor. A big one." She swallowed hard. "Jericho, I need you to marry me. Tonight."