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Jill Gregory grew up in Chicago and received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. She now lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan with her husband, her daughter, and their Yorkshire terrier.
Thunder Creek, Wyoming
"Hold it right there, lady. Step away from the car. I happen to know it belongs to our sheriff--you're under arrest."
Faith Barclay straightened from placing two sacks of groceries in the backseat of the silver Explorer and smiled at the man bearing down on her on Thunder Creek's main street. Her cousin Roy Hewett wore the same shit-eating grin on his face she'd seen a hundred times when they were kids--right after he'd slipped a frog down the back of her T-shirt or challenged her and her brothers to a race through the cemetery under a full moon.
"Good to see you too, Roy--I think." She had to laugh as he scooped her into a bear hug, then swung her around in the air like she weighed no more than she had when she was ten.
"Ty told me you'd be arriving today." He set her down on her feet and bussed her cheek. "Nice he could leave Josy's car at the airport for you to use while you're here, but too bad he and Josy were headed to New York right when you finally got your butt out here for a visit. Don't worry, though, big cousin Roy is here to keep an eye on you. You need anything, you know who to call."
Faith laughed, shoving her windblown, toffee-colored curls out of her eyes and giving him a hug. She was touched by Roy's concern. And at the same time she fought down a twinge of irritation.
What had her mom and brothers been telling him . . . telling everyone? Did half the town know she was "going through a rough spell," as her father so delicately put it?
"Thanks for the thought, Roy, but I don't need a babysitter. I'm more than able to take care of myself."
"You always have been, Faith. Hell, we know that." He gently tugged one of her curls. "Still . . . you're family. And me and Corinne are here for you."
"How is Corinne? Excited about the baby?" Faith was more than happy to change the subject from herself to Roy's wife. He and Corinne had gotten married just over a year ago and now they were expecting their first child in March. Much more pleasant, she thought, to discuss babies and nurseries and small-town life than the train wreck of my own life.
"Excited?" Roy smacked himself in the forehead. "She can't talk about anything else. Names. Girl names, boy names. Do I like Cassandra, she asks me. How about Viveca? If it's a boy, Roy Jr. and we'd call him RJ--or how about Caleb? I swear, she must have that book A Million and One Baby Names down cold."
"So which ones do you like?" Faith asked.
Roy threw up his hands. "Don't you start too. How about a cup of coffee? Bessie's Diner, right now. I'm buying. Then you should come on home with me--Corinne always has plenty for dinner. Might as well have a home-cooked meal your first night here--"
"How about a rain check, Roy? I'm beat," Faith lied. She ignored the guilt snapping through her at her cousin's disappointed expression.
"I'm worn out from the flight and the drive in from Casper." She spoke rapidly, apologetically. "I just want to get out to Blue Moon Mesa and settle in."
That part, at least, was true.
"Sure, but you gotta eat--" he began, and she interrupted him with a forced grin.
"I've survived twenty-nine years without you or my brothers spoon-feeding me, Roy. I'm pretty sure I can survive a monthlong stay in Thunder Creek too."
"Kiss Corinne for me. Tell her I'll come by and see her soon."
Without giving him a chance to argue further, Faith gave him a quick hug and stepped up into the Explorer.
"You always were a damned stubborn snip of a thing," Roy called as she put the SUV into gear and started forward.
"You bet your ass," Faith murmured to herself, waving, yet her faint smile of amusement faded as she left the sun-dappled bustling town behind and headed west toward Blue Moon Mesa.
She knew Roy and the rest of her family meant well, but their concern only made her feel all the more pathetic. Just because her job and her love life had both gone south in the past six months, and sleep was little more than a distant memory, it didn't mean she was falling apart. True, she'd forgotten to eat a few times lately, hadn't had a manicure since last Christmas, and had spent 90 percent of her time at the office the entire summer, but she was fine. Fine.
But deep inside, Faith wondered if they could be right. She was losing her equilibrium, filled with self-doubt. She badly needed this break. In the end, that's why she'd decided to chuck it all for a precious four weeks and see if a good long vacation at her family's Thunder Creek cabin would help her get her head together.
There was no better place to unwind than the Barclay cabin on Blue Moon Mesa, smack in the middle of land that had been in their family for generations. She'd been coming here a few times a year ever since she was a baby.
Usually Faith drove slowly through the grassy foothills leading to Shadow Point and eventually up to the rocky heights of Blue Moon Mesa. She liked to savor the green tall pines, the deep wild ravines, the rich open silence, letting the wild grandeur of Wyoming's open spaces soothe her the way nothing else could.
But today she was still tense from her morning in court and from the three cups of coffee she'd gulped before ditching her ringing phone and her office and the gritty streets of Philadelphia for the flight to Casper. Still in her professional uniform of black suit jacket over a gray silk blouse, knee-length black skirt, discreet gold shell earrings, and her trademark black stiletto heels, she couldn't wait to strip off the trappings of Faith Barclay, assistant district attorney, and pull on sweats. Tension still knotted her neck muscles and she drove faster, her gaze glued to the road, her foot pressing relentlessly on the accelerator as the glorious grass, scrub, aspen, and juniper trees blurred by.
Only another ten miles, she realized, shooting past Antelope Rock, and she'd be at the cabin.
The thought sent a surge of relief through her.
For too long she'd resisted the idea of taking time off, preferring to hunker down and work through her problems, diving into her caseload and blocking everything else out, the way she had after she and Kevin called off their engagement. But when the damaging courtroom events of the past few months had hit on top of her unraveling personal life, work had no longer been a refuge--it had become another huge source of stress.
What do you expect? Two major cases got screwed up on your watch.
The burden of that weighed on her slender shoulders like a set of barbells double her weight.
And she'd known she needed to take some time to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her so-called life.
Until recently, Faith had been the golden girl of the district attorney's office, the shining star who'd surged through the ranks of prosecuting attorneys like an ascending comet. All of the lawyers and judges and support staff of Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas for the First Judicial District had her pegged to make deputy DA by the time she was thirty.
She had a way of leaping over obstacles, brainstorming her way out of tight corners, and shining like eighteen-karat gold in the courtroom. The best defense attorneys in the state of Pennyslvania considered her a ball-breaker, which was just fine with Faith. She prided herself on her fairness, attention to detail, and dedication to the law, on vigorous prosecutions all carried out stringently by the book.
If her adversaries couldn't keep up, so much the better.
But both the Clement and Bayman cases had hit her hard. Her staff was still reeling, the newspapers were churning out investigations into how the system failed, and Faith had spent the past three weeks being grilled by an oversight committee and personally reviewing every shred of evidence in the Clement case, every interrogation, every file, with a fine-toothed comb.
Because now she not only had a stalker out on the streets when he should have been behind bars, she also had an innocent dead man on her conscience.
And no matter how she tried to justify it, both of those horrible miscarriages of justice could be laid, unofficially, at her door.
Technically, she wasn't responsible for Jimmy Clement's death--or for that monster Hank Bayman getting probation.
But that didn't help Faith sleep at night.
"A few weeks at the cabin will get this in perspective," her father had told her when he called last night while she was packing. She hoped to hell he was right. Slowing down slightly, she tightened her grip on the steering wheel as the Explorer plunged around a curve on Badman's Road, then she sped up again as the road evened out and blue sky and black-smudged mountains rose straight ahead.
It would be impossible not to sleep at the cabin, she told herself. Impossible not to be lulled by pine-laced mountain air, the immense silence of the Wyoming night, the sky spangled with a thousand gleaming stars.
Maybe it would only take a week or two, instead of the four she'd planned, before she felt restored and ready again to face the frenzy of work awaiting her, the pressure of the high-stakes cases flowing steadily to her desk. Before she was no longer worried about Susan Bayman and her kids, and furious every moment of the day because Hank Bayman was stalking the streets again, searching for his wife and children.
Her throat closed every time she thought about what would happen if Bayman found Susan and the kids. The man was certifiable. And he was relentless.
And she was pretty certain that he was the one who'd been calling her cell phone lately and hanging up without saying a word. He believed she knew where Susan had gone, where she was hiding, trying to start over.
And he was right.
But she'd be damned before she'd tell him anything other than to go to hell.
If he thought calling her in the middle of the night and breathing into the phone would scare her, he was as big a fool as he was a bully.
Suddenly, as the road curved abruptly, Faith's mind was jerked back to the present. The sight of a black Ford pickup hurtling toward her from the opposite direction had her slamming on her brakes, jerking the wheel to the right, perilously close to the edge.
The pickup veered left at the same instant and missed ramming into her by a nose. Her heart pounding, she dragged the Explorer to a screeching stop. The front end was angled awkardly less than five feet from the drop into the ravine.
Taking gulps of air to calm herself, she heard oaths coming from the other vehicle, then a strapping male catapulted from the pickup and stalked toward her.
Still catching her breath, Faith shoved open her door. Fury had her usually dreamy blue eyes snapping. She was outside, hands on her hips, glaring as the other driver approached.
The sun burned in her eyes and she squinted, trying to make out the face of the tall, muscular cowboy bearing down on her, but all she could see was a black Stetson shading his eyes and a white T-shirt and jeans encasing a body buff enough to model for Powerhouse Gym.
"Going sixty on a road like this, mister? That'll get you killed," she began blisteringly.
Then he was closer and the sun passed between the clouds and she saw his face. That handsome, hard, and angry face. He looked dangerous as sin and older now than the last time she'd seen him, ten years older, but her heart fell to her knees anyway and her mouth went dry as dust.
"You." The word came out in a breathless gasp. It sounded nothing like anyone who worked with Faith Barclay in the DA's office would ever recognize coming from her lips.
"You," she said again, harder, stronger.
Rage curled in her belly. She controlled it. She ignored the stupid ancient pain that seemed to still have power to stab her heart.
"You got a death wish, Faith?" Zach McCallum's eyes were silver slits. "Never mind, cancel that. You haven't changed, have you?"
Zach McCallum, no longer the lanky nineteen-year-old who for one glorious secret summer had laid claim to her heart, shook his head with the darkly sexy amusement she remembered so well.
For a moment time stood still. Faith might have been nineteen again too--and in love. Foolishly, stupidly in love with the bad boy from Texas who had raised hell that summer in Thunder Creek and had left boot marks all over her heart.
She hadn't seen him in ten years. Which was fifty years too soon.
"What are you doing back here, Zach? Besides driving on the wrong side of the road? You still make up all the rules as you go along, don't you?"
"Hey, don't blame him, Faith. You were speeding!" A female voice piped up from behind Zach, and Faith's gaze flew to Candy Merck, as the blonde she'd known since high school stamped over from the pickup, her orchid-blue eyes as round and darkly lined as ever.
Great. Candy'd always had her eye on Zach. Well, she could have him. Unless his wife objected, of course.
Faith ignored Candy and focused on Zach. "You were driving recklessly. As usual." Good, she sounded cold as ice now--the tone she used in court when the opposing attorney made a particularly weak point. She met his gaze steadily, forcing herself to return the stare of those hard indifferent eyes and not to focus on the sensuous slant of his mouth, or the broad slope of those powerful shoulders.
He was in even better shape than he'd been as a teenager, she noticed with a sinking heart. There were attractive creases at the corners of those penetrating silver-gray eyes, and a hard cynical wisdom in his face, a face that was still dark and beautiful all at once.
If anything he was even more impossibly handsome than before.
"I wasn't the only one being reckless," Zach said in a low tone. "You must have been going sixty, minimum."
"At least I was on the right side of the road."
"No one got hurt, Faith. I guess that's all that matters."
"Since when do you care who gets hurt?" The words flew out before she could stop them. All these years as a lawyer, in control, disciplined, weighing her words while shooting with both barrels, and yet that came out as if ten days had passed since Zach had broken her heart and not ten years.