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Tyler Stone loosened his grip on the steering wheel and eased his pickup to a stop at the edge of the small town of Dry Creek, Montana. He would never call this place home again and yet, here he was, looking down the street with a longing he hadn't expected. All of the old clapboard houses stood silent, their cement steps leading to doors that were firmly closed against the July heat.
"Nothing has changed," Tyler muttered to himself as he kept staring at the empty street.
It seemed impossible that the betrayal his family had experienced in this town hadn't left some outward mark on the buildings themselves. But none of the windows were boarded up. Not one house was deserted. Ten years ago, reporters had been knocking on the doors of all the buildings, demanding to know what kind of a woman Tyler's mother had been that she could kill her husband. The media had little compassion as she went on trial for her life, and Tyler wished he knew which of these doors had opened to spill the gossip about the Stone family.
His father's drunken abuse, their general unhappiness, even the time their electricity had been turned off for lack of payment had all made it into the news.
Suddenly, Tyler saw a flash of movement out of his left eye. A tremor raced through his hands until he realized it was only the reflection of the afternoon sun on his windshield.
"Easy now," he said to himself as he wiped his hands on his jeans. He didn't have time to worry about which neighbor had done what in the past. He had enough problems in the present. He had been hired to escort Angelina Brighton back to her home in Boston. If he couldn't convince her to go, he'd be out of a job. And not a newspaper in the world would even care.
This wasn't the first time he had been hired to babysit Angelina. She had been his last assignment with Brighton Security, the one right before he went into the military. Her father had received some kidnapping threats regarding her so Tyler had been assigned to serve as one of her bodyguards during her senior year of high school. At nineteen years old, he'd been chosen for the job because he could blend in with the other students and stay close to Angelina. All he was supposed to do in a bad situation was to summon the older Brighton guards who were there in the distance. No one had expected him to stop the kidnapping, identify a stalker and then dance with Angelina at the prom after her date waltzed off with another girl.
He remembered her father had barely blinked an eye at the kidnapping attempt, but he'd almost fired Tyler over the dance. Mr. Brighton had coldly informed Tyler that he had higher aspirations for his only child than for her to marry some half-breed Native American boy with criminal blood flowing through his veins. Tyler didn't mind what the man said about his heritage; he had always been proud that he looked like his Cherokee ancestors and nothing much could change that.
But he never talked about his mother or the fact that she was in prison for murdering his father. The shame of that burned deep inside him because, when all was said and done, Tyler knew the tragedy had somehow been his fault. He had been twelve years old, which in the Cherokee world was grown enough to be considered a man. But he hadn't had the nerve to go into the barn that awful day when he overheard his father throwing things and cursing his name. The man had a violent temper, and Tyler still had the bruises from his last beating. So he ran away, back to the house, where he hid. He never knew what his mother had said in response to his father or how long they argued or how she happened to strike that fatal blow. All Tyler knew was if he had gone inside that barn, things would have ended differently.
He glanced down at the photo of Angelina that he had taped to his dashboard. He hadn't asked for the photo, but her father, his boss, had given it to him anyway. Blonde, blue-eyed and petite, Angelina looked like a fashion doll at twenty-three years old. Tyler was only a year older than her, but he felt like he had been dragged through the bottom mud long enough to be many times her age. Of course, being in the military could do that to a man, especially when he was a special ops guy trying to infiltrate the Pashtun tribal region with only his wits for backup.
Just then a faint humming sound made Tyler look up into his rearview mirror. A car was approaching from behind. His left arm was still healing so he reached over with his right hand to roll up the window on his pickup, hoping whoever it was would drive by. Then the car got closer, and he saw it was a shiny red convertibleone that he recognized all too well.
Angelina was coming into town with the top down on her sports car and her long blond hair blowing in the wind. She always did live with gusto, he thought as he grinned for the first time in months.
When the convertible sped past, he realized Angelina was driving much too fast. What did she think she was doing? He knew she never took the slow way anywhere, but she had to live long enough to make it back to Boston or there would be no paycheck for him.
Tyler turned the key in his ignition. He had barely pulled back onto the road when he saw a sheriff's car come out from behind the cafe.
Good, he thought. The law was going to deal with her.
Just then the convertible screeched to a halt and started to back up at the same speed it had gone forward. Tyler had no choice but to pull off the road again. Only Angelina would try to outrun a lawman by putting her car in Reverse. Life was too precious to drive like a maniac and someone needed to tell Angelina that, he told himself. By the time she came parallel to him, the convertible screeched again as she put on the brakes.
Before it seemed possible, Angelina had flung open her door. The dust was still settling when she stepped out of her car. Then she stood up, turned and leaned forward, bracing her hands against the side of her convertible.
"Where'd you get that pickup?" she demanded.
Of all the things he'd expected her to say, that wasn't one of them. He knew she couldn't see him clearly enough to recognize him. She confirmed that when she put up one of her hands to shade her eyes from the sun as she squinted in his direction.
"I'd know that pickup anywhere," she continued, her voice still strong but sounding less sure of herself. "Not many old black pickups have a dent on one side and an Indian head bumper sticker like that on the other."
The bumper sticker, a chief in full headdress, was one of the few things Tyler had taken with him when he left the family ranch. He had been determined to be a warrior after that day by the barn. Longing to be self-sufficient and strong, he pledged not to fear anyone, or need them either. If he'd taken his beating like a man, no one would have died and his mother would be home in her kitchen baking pies instead of sitting in some prison.
Tyler opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. He couldn't do much more than breathe. He'd forgotten how vibrant Angelina was when she was stirred up. Her blond hair looked like spun gold and it floated around her as she started marching around the car on her way toward his pickup.
"That's Tyler Stone's pickup." She rounded the side of her convertible and pointed right at him. "He left it at my father's place and no one has permission to drive it. No one."
She was fearless.
Tyler finally forced his pulse to slow down. All he owned was this old pickup truck and maybe some interest in his family's deserted ranch. His modest prospects were the main reason her father had forbid him to show any interest in her. And, on that one point, Tyler had agreed. He was poor and he knew what it was to do without. He could never ask Angelina to give up her trust fund money and he couldn't accept any of it either. A man had to have some pride. No, they had no choice but to part at the end of her senior year.
"It's me," he managed to say.
Her face had gone paler than Tyler liked, but he supposed he had no right to expect her to be happy to see him. She'd called him her jailer more than once. He was used to hauling her out of trouble. He should have told Brighton Security to send someone else.
"But you're supposed to be dead!" she said with shock in her voice.
"It was a misunderstanding," Tyler said as he scrambled to make sense of what had happened. "I wasn't really dead. The notification was a mistake."
He remembered how he had managed to get the three Pashtun children to safety before the bomb exploded, but he was left standing too close. He ended up with a big red burn along his right side and a piece of metal in his knee that slowed him down considerably. His left arm suffered some damage and he couldn't easily make a fist on that hand. After the explosion, the parents of those children had carried him to a hospital where he'd lain semiconscious and unidentified for weeks. He'd been gone so long that, when the villagers said he'd been killed in the bomb blast, his unit had given him up for dead. The notification was supposed to say Missing in Action, but somehow things had gotten confused.
"And you never thought to tell me you were still alive?" Angelina exclaimed, her sapphire-blue eyes flashing at him.
"Iah" He hadn't thought she would have cared.
Tyler moved his head, leaning farther out the window, hoping it would ease the situation if she could see him better. That's when the brim of his Stetson hit the edge of the open window and was knocked off his head. He watched the cream-colored hat fall straight down into the dirt. Without his hat, the sunlight hit his face full strength.
"You really are Tyler Stone." Angelina's lips pursed together and she shook her head. Then she did the most amazing thing. She calmly walked over to where his hat sat on the ground, bent down and picked it up, then brushed it off and offered it to him.
"You'll need this," she said, her words clipped.
The Angelina he remembered was never that matter-of-fact and controlled.
"I'm sorry," he managed to say. "I should have thought toto"
He really wasn't sure what he could have done. "You know, I never even had your phone number. How did you expect me to get you the news anyway?"
He certainly couldn't pass the word through her father, and she must have known that.
"You could have figured it out," she snapped back. "Before I made a fool of myself."
"You're no fool," he protested automatically.
He never guessed she had known about the death notification from the military. Tyler had asked to list her father's firm on his papers as next of kin because he didn't want to disturb his mother in prison. The man had reluctantly agreed. That's why Mr. Brighton had known to meet Tyler's plane when he got back from Afghanistan. He never thought anyone but the office staff had ever known or cared about the notification.
Tyler reached out to retrieve his hat from Angelina, but had completely forgotten about his left hand. So when he went to grip the hat, he couldn't grab hold of the brim. Before he could stop it, the Stetson floated to the ground again.
"Oh." He heard a gasp and looked up.
"Why, you're hurt," she whispered, her voice thick with pity. All of the color rushed back into her face.
Tyler looked down at his hand. The nerves had been damaged and the skin was still puckered red from the burn. His whole hand had a tendency to swell in the heat and look puffy. He planned to start physical therapy after he got Angelina back home.
"I'm fine," he said because he didn't know what else to say.
By now, the sheriff's car had pulled up on the other side of Angelina's convertible. As the man in the patrol car stepped closer, Tyler realized it was Sheriff Carl Wall. He looked just the same. Then Tyler noticed the sheriff held the leash of a brown dog that had a pink ribbon draped around its neck. At least that was something new. The lawman hadn't been in charge of animal control duty before.
The canine whimpered a little in the silence. Tyler wondered if the dog sensed the tension.
If there was one person Tyler had never wanted to see again it was Sheriff Wall. The last time Tyler had set eyes on him had been a cold winter day. The sheriff had come out to the Stone ranch and helped carry his father's murdered body out of the barn. Then he had turned right around and arrested Tyler's mother.
"I heard rumors you were in the military," the lawman finally said, rocking back on his heels. "Special Ops, I thought it was. Run into problems?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle." Tyler didn't want sympathy from the sheriff or Angelina so he unlatched the door to his pickup and started to open it. "And I got out of the service a week ago."
The door of Tyler's pickup swung wide. When he had room, he stepped to the ground and reached out with his right hand to pick up his hat. He brushed the Stetson against the sides of his jeans.
Tyler couldn't stop his left hand from trembling.