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Authors: Brenda Minton

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BOOK: The Cowboy Lawman
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She knew she could trust Slade.

* * *

Slade watched the patrol cars leave and then he walked with Mia, Myrna Cooper and Caleb to the house. Myrna fanned herself with a church bulletin she pulled out of her purse.

“Well, that’s more excitement than an old gal needs in one day. Slade, how’s your mama doing?”

“She’ll be released tomorrow, but they want her to rest. Not that she’s going to be okay with resting.”

“Well, I’ll take a casserole over there tomorrow afternoon. You tell her not to worry about a thing.”

Caleb’s face scrunched and he looked at his dad. “Is grandma okay?”

“She’s fine, Caleb. Her heart is a little sick but the doctors will help it get better.”

He hoped that was the truth. It had to be. He had prayed long and hard on the way to the hospital. The prayers had taken him back to the night Vicki died. He’d prayed that he would get to the accident and it would be a mistake, that it wouldn’t be her. The old wound opened, and he had to reach down for his son’s hand to jolt himself back to the present.

Caleb smiled up at him, squeezing his hand back. For years, it had been the two of them against the world. And Slade’s mom had helped him hold it all together.

Caleb pulled on his hand, forcing him to follow Mia into the house. She walked through the living room that had been turned upside down to the kitchen door and then stood, lost in her own thoughts. He watched her, and she caught his look and held it before smiling at his son.

“We should eat lunch. Caleb and I were going to have grilled PB&J.” She made it sound normal, like nothing had happened. Mia had experience dealing with what life threw at her.

He looked at his son, surprised by the choice. “Did you let her talk you into that?”

Caleb grinned big. “Granny Myrna says it’s better than it sounds.”

“If she says so, it probably is.” He caught a look from Myrna and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. He definitely didn’t think it had anything to do with grilled peanut butter and jelly. That was just a guess on his part.

“It’s always good to trust my judgment, Slade McKennon. I’ve lived a long time and I have a few things figured out.”

“Like grilled PB&J?”

“Exactly.” Myrna looked at her watch. “Well, my goodness, I didn’t realize it had gotten so late. I’m going to have to run. Slade, do you think you could help Mia out?”

Before he could answer, Mia rushed into the conversation. “Gran, I can take care of things. You go and I’ll be fine.”

“Slade is here. He won’t mind helping you.” Granny Myrna winked at Slade. “Isn’t that right?”

She headed for the door and Slade couldn’t think as fast as she seemed to be able to walk. He reached the door just in time to open it so that she could make a grand exit, smiling back at him and waving her fingers.

“You kids be good, and I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you, Mia.”

With that she was gone.

“She’s good.” Mia laughed as she said it.

He turned and Mia stood a few steps behind him with that look on her face that said she could handle anything. But if he looked closer, into dark eyes that shadowed and closed a person out, maybe she wasn’t handling things after all.

“You okay?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“Do you want me to make a list of reasons why you wouldn’t be okay? Should I start with your partner dying in your arms? Follow that with an injury that might mean the end of your career, then we’ll talk about someone breaking into your house. Have I missed anything?”

She shook her head, “No, you cut right to the heart of it. Thanks.”

“Mia, we’re friends. I’m here. And I know that you’re going to try to bury all this and pretend nothing happened. It’s better to talk it out.”

“I know.” Her voice grew soft and she turned away. “We should fix lunch. I’ll bet Caleb is starving. Where is Caleb?”

“He’s in the kitchen.”

She nodded but kept her back to him. “Let’s get that boy something to eat.”

He reached for her left arm. “Mia, stop.”

She still didn’t turn. Back ramrod-straight and head high, she stood frozen beneath his touch. “Slade, I’m barely hanging on right now. I’m not sure who was in my house or what they were looking for. Butch is dead and Tina is hiding something.”

Her voice broke and he moved to face her. Her eyes closed and she shook her head when he rested his hand on her shoulder. He stepped back, giving her space to find strength. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

“Slade, I have to figure this out.”

“I’ll help.”

“You have your plate pretty full with Caleb, your mom and your job.”

He laughed a little at that. “And you volunteered to watch Caleb. I won’t hold you to that.”

“I want to watch him.”

“I don’t know.” He brushed a hand across his face, suddenly bone-tired and wishing he could have a do-over on this day.

“How do we move on, Slade? How do we stop holding on to the past? You’re holding on to Caleb because he’s all you have left of Vicki. I’ve been afraid to look at him, get attached to him, because he’s all I have left of my best friend. I should have been in his life, hugging him and being the person Vicki would have wanted me to be.”

“We did what we had to do to survive.”

“Right.” Mia looked down at her right arm, held tight to her body with the sling. “Now what?”

“Last time I checked, you haven’t stopped surviving. Maybe you’ve lost some faith, but you’re going to get that back.”

“Will I?”

“Yeah, you will. Take it from someone who had to dig hard to find God when I needed Him most. And now I can look back and realize I should have let Him back in a lot sooner. I should have spent less time angry.”

“Anger’s easier than the pain.”

Yeah, the pain. He remembered when it had been fresh, cutting like a hot knife into his heart. He’d thought it would last forever. It still hurt, but not like that. Not all the time.

He knew Mia would get there, too.

She let out a long sigh. “Slade, I could really use a hug.”

Mia, a hug? She smiled at him, because she had to know what he was thinking.

“Even I need a hug once in a while, McKennon.”

He raised his arms, awkward, really awkward. Mia stepped into his embrace. He stood there for a few long seconds unsure about what to do next. And then his arms circled her. She breathed in and rested her head on his shoulder and her left arm went around his waist.

Awkwardness dissolved and he rested his hand on her back.

“I hate this,” she murmured against his collar. “I hate being weak. I hate not having answers. I hate not being able to fix it.”

“I know.” He kissed the top of her head and she backed up, wiping at her eyes.

“I’m not a blubbering baby.”

“I know that, too. And if I remember correctly, you were with me when I lost it a few times.”

“You were there for me, too.”

“I guess I was.”

Friends, sitting on the tailgate of a truck at the back of a field, holding hands and crying over the loss of a wife, the loss of a best friend.

“I wasn’t married to Butch, Slade. What you went through... I know you still miss her.”

“I miss her. I miss who we would have been together. I miss the moments she would have had with Caleb.” Slade took hold of Mia’s hand and led her into the kitchen. Caleb sat on the floor with a truck and a race car. He looked up as they entered the room. Slade wanted to be a kid again, playing with cars and building forts.

Life was a lot easier then. But then, looking at Caleb, Slade wouldn’t have missed this for anything. Even though he would have been okay with fewer hard times, more smooth sailing.

“I’m still hungry. But I ate cookies,” Caleb confessed, even though the evidence was all over his face.

“Did you?” Slade opened the fridge door and pulled out butter and jelly. “Do you still have room for a sandwich?”

Caleb nodded and pushed the truck into the car, making a major crash. “Yep. And milk to drink.”

“Milk it is.” Slade grabbed the jug of milk.

Mia set a loaf of bread on the counter and then found the peanut butter and pulled out a skillet. “We could have something easier.”

“I think I can handle buttering bread and spreading peanut butter and jelly on it.” Slade found a knife and paper plates.

Making the sandwich was nothing compared to standing in Mia’s kitchen, thinking about holding her again. He sure hadn’t expected that to be the thought rolling through his mind as he buttered six slices of bread and stacked them on a paper plate.

Mia had moved away from him. She was sitting next to Caleb, showing him something with the truck. A moment later a battery-operated engine roared to life and Caleb shouted that it worked. Mia spoke softly to his son.

Slade spread peanut butter on three slices of bread and pretended that nothing in his world had changed in the past five minutes. But he knew he’d be lying to himself.

Chapter Five

M
onday morning the alarm went off early. Mia started to hit snooze, but she knew that Slade would be showing up with Caleb. Jackson would be showing up, too, bringing the mare she needed to care for. She shook her head as she rolled out of bed. How did she get herself into these situations?

She dressed and then she walked down the hall to make tea. Before anyone showed up, she had plans. She brought her gun out of the gun cabinet. She left the ammo in the lockbox. No need to load the gun. She just wanted to see if she could make it work.

But it didn’t work. She held the unloaded weapon in her right hand and eased it up, letting her hand rest on her left arm. Pain shot up her arm into her shoulder and she eased it back down. She wouldn’t cry. The pain wouldn’t make her cry. She tried to flex her fingers, praying they’d do what she commanded, but they wouldn’t.

She picked up the weapon with her left hand and pretended to aim. She’d never been able to do more than scribble with her left hand. She’d always wished she had been born ambidextrous, like her brother, Travis. She wished it now more than ever.

Maybe if she worked at it long enough, she might be able to learn to shoot left-handed. She could teach her brain. She would make this work. Because without her job, what would she be?

That’s the question she’d been asking herself for weeks. Who was she without her job? The DEA psychologist had made her write out a list. Sister. Daughter. Friend. Granddaughter to Myrna.

Sister to Breezy—if Breezy was still out there somewhere. She remembered her little sister, curly brown hair and dark hazel eyes. The day their mother died, the social workers had taken them all to Family Services. They’d been placed in a temporary home, together, until family could be found.

In the end, Mia had been the only one without biological family that could be traced. But she’d survived. God had given her the Coopers. She didn’t regret. No regrets. Just sometimes emptiness, wondering about her little sister.

Breezy didn’t seem to exist anymore. She wasn’t on any social networking sites, not with her given name of Breezy. She didn’t appear on any state websites. Which just meant she hadn’t been in trouble with the law. No criminal record, anyway.

A truck with a rumbling diesel engine pulled into her driveway. Mia looked out the window. Slade’s truck. She opened the front door and waited. He helped Caleb out and grabbed a bag from the back. The two walked up the sidewalk, Caleb in jeans, boots and a T-shirt. He pushed his straw cowboy hat back and smiled at her. Vicki’s smile. It didn’t hurt, not the way she expected. Caleb was Vicki’s son. He had her smile. He had her ability to make people look at the bright side.

Her gaze shifted up, to Caleb’s daddy. No one else she knew could make that deputy’s uniform look so good. Slade did it with a casual strength. His white cowboy hat tilted at a cocky angle and he pushed the brim up, flashing her a smile.

“Did you remember?”

“Of course I did.”

“No, you didn’t.” Slade stepped up on the porch, holding a little backpack with a red car on the front, the other hand holding Caleb’s. “We can do something else.”

“Slade, I did remember and I’m ready. I even called Vera and asked for lunch to be delivered.” She opened the door a little wider. “Come inside. What time do you have to be at work?”

“Soon.” He stopped in the middle of the living room and then turned back to look at her.

Mia followed that accusing gaze and it landed on the weapon she’d left on the coffee table. Unloaded, of course. The bullets were locked in a cabinet in her closet.

“Slade, I had to try.”

“Try?”

She moved her right arm, back in the sling since the failed attempt at holding her weapon. “I can’t hold it. I can’t pull the trigger.”

His look changed, softened. She shook her head.

“I don’t want sympathy.” She picked up the weapon and smiled at Caleb. “Not for little boys to touch, Caleb. Ever.”

He gave her a “duh” look. “I know that.”

“I want to make sure. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Mia.” Slade’s voice was soft.

“Slade, please stop. I’m good.”

“You’re always good, aren’t you? You can conquer the world on your own, right? You don’t need us mere mortals to lean on.”

“I do. But I don’t want to cry over it.”

“You’re more than this job.”

She knew that. She had the list. Daughter. Sister. Granddaughter. “So I’ve been told. But could someone please tell me who I am?”

He smiled at her, an easy cowboy smile replacing the soft look of sympathy. He’d always had that easy charm. She thought about being seven, almost eight years old and attending church with the Coopers that first time. He’d smiled like that and told her he could beat her at tetherball. The challenge had pulled her out of her shell. How had he known it would work, just a boy of ten? How had he known her so well?

“Mia, you have to figure out who you are without the job. I can tell you who I think you are. You are the strongest woman I know. You’re so strong you’ve never seemed to need any of us. You plow through life, taking on the world’s problems.”

“I’m not that strong.” She’d just pretended and somehow managed to convince herself. “Let me put this gun back.”

When she walked back into the living room, Slade was hanging the backpack on the hooks by her front door. She watched, unsure, really unsure. Slade turned, caught her watching. He shifted his attention to Caleb who had turned on the television to a kids’ show with dinosaurs.

“Buddy, not too much TV, please, and make sure you’re helpful.”

Caleb nodded but kept watching the show. He had pulled a footstool close to the television and lay flopped over the top of it. His boots were on the floor next to him.

“He’ll be fine, Slade. We’ll be fine.”

He indicated with a nod that she should follow him to the door. Mia glanced back at Caleb and followed Slade out the door.

“Mia, if this gets to be too much, I can call one of the ladies from church.”

“It isn’t too much. Stop worrying.” She watched him frown, look away. “And we’ll be safe.”

“I know I’d be wasting my breath if I told you that you should stay with your parents until we figure out who broke in here and why.”

“Yes, you wasted your breath. If I feel it’s best, I’ll go stay with them. Until then, I’m here and I’m figuring this out.”

“Figuring it out? Mia, are you digging into something you shouldn’t?”

“Maybe. Let me dig. Someone knew how to get here. We need to know who, or how they got that information. Right?”

“Right.” His voice faded. “Stay safe and let me know what you find.”

“I will. You’re the only person I know I can trust right now.”

“There are other people.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” She stepped close.

“You’re right, you can always trust me.”

“You be safe today, too.”

And then he touched her cheek, the touch light and fleeting before he turned and walked away. She watched his truck until it turned on the main road out of Dawson. And then another truck came up the road, this one pulling a trailer. Jackson. She opened the door and called for Caleb.

“Jackson is here with the horse.”

Caleb let out a shout and then she heard his boots on the hardwood floor. He rounded the corner from the kitchen, happy the way a kid should be happy. She smiled. This was good, watching Caleb for Slade. For Vicki.

Mia closed her eyes for a brief moment and guilt replaced the moment of happiness. Slade had always been Vicki’s. Friendship meant hands-off. She’d kept that rule since the day they were fourteen, when Vicki shared with her that someday she wanted to marry Slade McKennon.

She opened her eyes and smiled at her brother as he got out of his truck. Caleb ran out the front door.

“You like horses?” Mia asked, already knowing the answer.

He nodded but kept walking, his boots stomping on the wood slats of the porch. “My dad is letting me help him break a horse.”

“Really? Breaking a horse at your age? That’s pretty impressive.”

He gave her a look, like it was no big deal and guys like him broke horses all the time. “I don’t get on it yet.”

“I see.” She started down the steps and he followed. “I’ll bet you’re a good helper.”

“My dad is the best. He can break any old horse.”

“I know he can.”

Caleb hurried to get to the trailer but slowed at the end of the sidewalk to wait for her. “Did you know my dad is training a cuttin’ horse for someone in Texas?”

“I think I’d heard that.” She stopped next to the child. Jackson had a lead rope and was unlatching the back of the trailer.

“Hey, sis.” Jackson stepped inside the trailer, the metal creaked. The horse whinnied and then shifted, restless from being inside.

“Jackson, I don’t know if I can do this.” She stepped close, peering inside.

“I know you can dump a can of grain and fill a water trough. That’s what she needs now, that and some love.”

“I might go back to work someday.” The reminder might have been for Jackson, or for herself.

“Then I’ll take her back to my place.”

Mia stepped up on the side of the trailer and looked in at the mare. She was a bay, a deep brown with black mane and tail and black legs. And she was too thin. The mare turned her face in Mia’s direction, revealing the warmest, saddest brown eyes she’d ever seen on a horse.

“Well, aren’t you a pretty girl. Who leaves a sweet lady like you behind?”

Jackson now stood next to the mare. “Someone who runs out of options.”

“Yeah, it happens.” Mia rubbed the horse’s velvety nose. “You are a fink, Jackson Cooper. You knew I’d love her.”

“Been a long time since you stayed home and took care of a horse, Mia. You were the best.”

“No, I just had the best behind me. And good horses.”

Inside the shadowy trailer, the look on her brother’s face changed. He went from easygoing to concerned, just like that, and Mia needed an out. She turned, motioning Caleb to join her. He stepped up on the running board and then the wheel well of the trailer. With five-year-old seriousness, he eyed the hungry mare.

“She’s pretty thin.”

“That she is, Caleb.” Jackson spoke to the boy and then quietly to the horse that was having second thoughts about stepping backward off the trailer. The mare whinnied again. From somewhere in the distance another horse answered her fearful cry. Jackson continued to talk, convincing the horse she’d like her new home and she wouldn’t be left again.

Mia shot him a look because the last was as much for her as it was the horse.

But maybe her brother was right. Maybe she wouldn’t leave again. The injury might sideline her for good. And then what? People in town wanted a barrel-racing clinic for their kids. She thought back to when barrel-racing had been her first love. Her only love.

But she’d quit to pursue a degree in criminal justice, and then she’d taken a job with the DEA, eventually working on a task force that went after drug rings. Catching the dealers who poisoned children’s lives had become her all-consuming love.

A thought whispered through her mind, that maybe she’d lost a little bit of who she had been in that dark world, lost herself to that job. A job shouldn’t be a first love.

She had definitely lost her way.

Jackson handed her the lead rope of the mare. The horse stepped close. Caleb stood at Mia’s side, his grin wide and his eyes bright as he stared up.

Maybe she and Caleb needed this mare as much as the horse needed them. Mia hoped she never had to admit that to Jackson. But from the knowing glint in his eyes, she guessed he already knew.

“What do we do now?” Caleb tugged on the hem of Mia’s shirt.

“We put her in the field, give her feed and make sure the water trough is full. Can you help?” Mia handed him the tail end of the lead rope and positioned herself between the boy and the horse.

“I can help,” Caleb announced. “Just wait until my dad sees her.”

Mia let him help her lead the mare to the pasture. Jackson was there to unhook the gate for them. He also hooked up the hose for the water trough.

She let the mare go and watched as the horse grabbed a bite of grass and then moved on to another patch of green. The little boy next to her climbed up the fence to watch, his arms resting on the top rail.

“She sure is skinny.” He shook his head as he made the announcement.

“We’ll get her fattened up in no time, Caleb.” Mia thought about how the words sounded like a promise that the horse would get better. But it also felt like a vow to be in his life for a while.

She didn’t want to make promises like that, not unless she meant to stay in Dawson.

* * *

Slade didn’t enjoy slow days at work, driving the country roads, with nothing but the occasional traffic violation, mostly speeding. But he also didn’t like days like the one he’d just put behind him. He’d had a domestic call right off the bat, a battered wife who wouldn’t press charges, and then he’d assisted Family Services in removing a child from a home. His day had ended with a car accident. He could never work an accident without remembering the night he’d driven up on the scene of Vicki’s wreck.

As he pulled into Mia’s driveway, he glanced at the clock on the dash. Almost eight o’clock. He rolled his shoulders to loosen the kinks before getting out. As he walked up the sidewalk the porch light came on and the door opened. Mia stepped out, holding her finger to her lips. He stopped and drew in a deep breath, because something held him for a minute. He took off his hat and swiped a hand through his hair.

“You okay?” she asked.

The soft voice reached through the twilight, and he hesitated. “Yeah, long day.”

“Caleb’s asleep. Why don’t you come in and have something to eat?” Her voice remained gentle.

He stepped closer and the look in her eyes matched her voice. “Mia.”

She took him by the hand and led him into the house. The living room glowed with the soft light of a floor lamp. The TV had been turned off. Caleb slept on the sofa, an afghan pulled up to his shoulders and his boots on the floor. Slade stopped to look at his son, at the peaceful expression on his face, the smudge of dirt on his cheek.

BOOK: The Cowboy Lawman
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