Owen Blackthorne is a lone wolf, a man who doesn’t need anyone. Then Bayleigh Creed appears on his doorstep, demanding his help in locating her missing brother. Together they head into the desolate West Texas wilderness, a Blackthorne and a Creed, mortal enemies obliged to join forces to survive. Neither counts on the unwanted attraction that draws them together, or the bitter truths that will force them apart—until the ruthless wilderness compels them to make life-and-death choices between family and duty and love.
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Owen Blackthorne stepped into the Armadillo Bar and found trouble waiting for him. "Damn that Creed kid," he muttered.
Luke Creed was arguing with the bartender, who was refusing to serve him. The kid should have known better, since he was three years shy of the legal drinking age in Texas. The teenager wore baggy jeans and an oversized black T-shirt that did nothing to hide the Texas-sized chip on his narrow shoulders. His brown hair was cut in short, youthful spikes, but his desperate brown eyes were ages older, angry and bitter and disillusioned.
The Creed kid had been in and out of trouble constantly over the past eighteen months since his father had been murdered. He blamed the Blackthornes one and all for his father's death. Since there was nothing the kid could do to hurt the powerful family that was the source of his grief, he took out his frustration on the rest of the world.
Owen stepped up to the bar, letting Luke get a good look at the silver badge on his shirt that announced the arrival of a Texas Ranger.
The kid quickly made it clear he wasn't impressed by the badge or the man wearing it. He turned on Owen and snarled, "Everywhere I go you Blackthornes turn up like a bad smell."
Owen ordered a beer from the bartender, at the same time eyeing the boy in the mirror behind the bar, which was lined with twinkling Christmas tree lights year round. In a low voice he said, "Take it easy, kid."
Luke puffed up like a banty rooster and said, "Go to hell." He turned to the bartender, his hands pressed flat on the bar. "I'm thirsty. How about that drink?"
Before the bartender could respond, Owen laid a dollar on the bar and said, "I'm buying. He'll have a Coke."
"Forget it," Luke said. "I'm not thirsty anymore."
"Then maybe you should leave," Owen suggested.
"You and what army are gonna make me?" the kid shot back.
Owen felt his adrenaline begin to pump. He hadn't come in here looking for a fight, and the last thing he wanted to do was arrest Luke Creed. He knew what it was like to rage against circumstances over which you had no control. He knew what it was like to hurt inside because someone you cared for was gone forever.
Maybe the kid was entitled to hate Blackthornes. It was Owen's mother who'd caused the death of Luke's father. Because there'd been no proof of what she'd done that would hold up in court, Eve Blackthorne had ended up in a sanitarium instead of jail. Hell. No one said life was fair.
The bartender set an icy bottle of Pearl, dripping with condensation, in front of Owen. Before he could pick it up, the Creed kid bumped it hard with his elbow. It toppled and fell, shattering on the sawdusted cement floor.
Owen swore as he jumped back to avoid the shards of broken glass and the yeasty splatter of foaming beer.
The kid sneered at him in the mirror and said, "Oops."
The bar got so quiet Owen could hear every word of the whispery Western ballad Wynonna was singing on the jukebox. He knew the patrons were hoping for a showdown. Owen was determined not to give them one.
He shoved the broken glass aside with his boot and stepped up to the bar. "Another beer," he said.
Luke turned his back to the bar, leaned his elbows on the laminated surface, and set one booted foot on the brass footrail, daring Owen to do something in retaliation. Anything to give him an excuse to strike out.
Owen figured the situation was about as bad as it could get. Then it got worse.
He saw the kid's eyes go wide, then narrow, and followed their focus to the door, where his brother Clay was standing in the entrance to the bar.
He and Clay were identical twins, both tall and broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. But Owen spent his life outdoors, so his skin was tanned, making his gray eyes look almost silver, and he had his share of crow's-feet from squinting past the glare of the searing Texas sun. Owen mostly wore Wrangler jeans, a yoked white Western shirt with a bolo tie, and cowboy boots.
His brother Clay, who'd been elected the youngest ever attorney general of the state of Texas two years ago at the age of thirty, had on a button-down oxford-cloth shirt with a red striped tie, expensive wool-blend suit trousers, and cordovan shoes. As a concession to their meeting in the bar, Clay had pulled his tie down, and the top button of his blue shirt was undone to reveal a thatch of dark chest hair.
"Hey," Clay said as he stepped up to the bar beside Owen. "What's going on?"
The jukebox had begun playing Billy Ray Cyrus's one-hit wonder, "Achey Breaky Heart." As they always did on Friday nights in the Armadillo Bar, the drunken crowd sang along at the top of their voices.
Over the noise, Luke Creed shouted an angry response to Clay's question. "I'll tell you what's going on. Your brother's being an asshole!"
"That's enough, soldier," Clay admonished.
"That National Guard bullshit won't wash in here," Luke said, his eyes glittering with malice. "We're not on weekend maneuvers now, Major Blackthorne. I don't have to obey you."
"A little respect for your elders wouldn't be out of line," Clay said sardonically.
"You're not my company commander unless we're both in uniform," the kid retorted. "Otherwise, you're just another asshole. In your case, a thieving asshole."
"Watch yourself, kid," Owen said in a measured voice.
But Luke was on a rant and reason wasn't working on him. "I know you stole those missing VX mines," he shouted in Clay's face. "If it's the last thing I do, I'm gonna find a way to prove it. One of you Blackthornes is finally gonna get what's coming to you."
"You're talking like a fool," Clay said, his voice even softer, which told Owen just how angry he was.
"I'm no fool," the kid snapped. "I know what I know."
"Exactly what is it you know about those nerve gas mines?" Owen asked Luke. Every law enforcement agency in Texas, and a bunch of federal agencies as well, had spent the past week searching for three crates of missing VX nerve gas mines. The mines had been discovered in mislabeled crates during recent maneuvers by a unit of the Bitter Creek National Guard and had been on their way to a disposal and storage facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when they were hijacked.
"I know your brother met with someone at the armory two days before the mines were stolen," the kid said to Owen. "I heard the two of them talking about the schedule for when the mines were gonna be shipped to Arkansas. They shut up quick enough when they saw me watching them."
The kid focused his gaze on Clay and said, "But I heard what you said. I know you took those mines. I'll figure out why you took them and where you put them and then you'll end up in jail, where all you Blackthorne bastards belong!"
"Don't make accusations you can't back up," Clay said in a deadly voice.
"Who's gonna stop me?" the kid demanded.