When widow Chloe Landon's house burns, Deputy Reed Taylor is first on the scene, riding to the rescue of the woman he's promised to protect. Determined to help her rebuild the life she lost, can he continue to pretend she wasn't the one who got away.
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Release date: December 14, 2019
Publisher: Indie House Publishing
Print pages: 97
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Little in life could beat a west Texas sunrise. Mingling of reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks created a kaleidoscope of color to energize even the most tired of souls. And this morning Officer Reed Taylor was tired.
The holiday season was in full swing, and as much as Christmas brought out the best in most people, it brought out the crazy in others. One hour left in the graveyard shift at the Tuckers Bluff PD, and after chasing a merry band of teenage pranksters out tipping cows from the one end of the Farraday spread to the north side of the Brady’s, he felt like his shift had gone on for days not hours.
Reed could only hope, with the grace of God, the good people of Tuckers Bluff would refrain from any more mischief until it was DJ’s turn to deal with it. He glanced at the dashboard; in fifty-four minutes he’d be on his way home and could sleep till his new neighbor’s crazy mixed up rooster crowed at the setting sun. That thought made him smile.
It had been a big decision to stop renting and buy his own place here in Tuckers Bluff. Even bigger to choose a home outside of the city limits. Close enough to reach the police station quickly if needed, but far enough away that the quiet sounds of country living lulled him to sleep like a newborn in his mama’s arms. And if he were honest, deep enough in Farraday country to be included in weekly Sunday suppers. The Marine Corps had made him and DJ brothers. Aunt Eileen, Sean, and every other member of the clan had made him family.
“Reed,” Esther’s voice came through the radio squawk, “are you on your way back in yet?”
“10-4,” he replied.
“I just got a call from Nadine Peabody. Says there’s a coyote in her yard making her cats nervous.”
Reed chuckled to himself. Nadine Peabody was quite the character. Indulging a lonely old woman’s need for a little human contact and conversation was considerably easier than the things that might have sprung up when he and DJ were cops in Dallas. “On my way.”
Arriving at Nadine’s would take about thirty minutes. The trick would be escaping in less than twenty for the end of his shift. His cell phone buzzed and he wondered who was calling at this hour. “Hello.”
“Hey, man. Are you anywhere near the ranch?” DJ asked.
“Sorry. Already passed it. What’s up?”
“Nothing much. Jamison wants Aunt Eileen’s ginormous corned beef pot and I thought if I could catch you it would save me a trip.”
“I can turn around if you want. Only thing pending is Nadine Peabody and a stalking coyote.” He could almost hear DJ rolling his eyes. The coyote was most likely merely another figment of the creative and slightly paranoid woman’s imagination. She practically lived at his brother Brooks’ veterinary clinic. If there was such a thing as a cat hypochondriac, that was Nadine. Though the whole town knew most of it was just a need to talk.
“Tell you what. You go get the pot and I’ll take care of Nadine.”
“Sounds like a plan.” The rising sun bounced off a large gray hump in the middle of the road.
“What the heck?” Slowing down, the now two gray humps came more clearly into view.
“What’s wrong?” DJ’s voice dropped to a concerned low.
“Not sure.” First thought might have been Nadine’s coyotes had high-tailed it west, but these roadblocks were a tad too large for a coyote. More likely… “Looks like Gray and his lady friend are out for a stroll.”
“How far did you say you are from the ranch?”
“Four, maybe five miles.”
“Odd,” DJ mumbled. “Since the tornado those two stick close to Dad and Aunt Eileen.”
“Well, right now they’ve taken to sightseeing dead center of the road.”
“Just standing there staring at me like they’ve seen the second coming.” The sun lifting higher in the sky, he killed the lights and came to a stop yards from the statuesque canines.
“Are you sure it’s our dogs? The dogs?” There was no missing the incredulity in DJ’s tone. The guy may have trusted Reed with his life a time or two, but DJ clearly thought he’d lost his eyesight now.
“I’m telling you… wait.” Almost as though reassured they’d made eye contact, the two still animals turned away from the road. “They’re on the move.”
“Now that sounds more like them.” A sharp howl pierced the country quiet. “Is that Gray?”
“It’s one of them.” The two had stopped across the road, and this time the other dog lifted his muzzle to the air and let out another sharp howl before turning and once again racing away from the road.
Shaking his head, Reed slowly pulled onto the shoulder, spinning the steering wheel to return to the Farraday ranch. “On my way for the pot.”
As quickly as the adopted Farraday dogs had appeared in the road ahead, the two sat once again in his path. How the hell did they do that? Another howl and icy fingers skittered up his back and his gut sent out an alert. Something was up, and he knew deep down it wasn’t good. “I’d swear they expect me to follow.”
Showing no signs of being alarmed by the odd behavior, DJ chuckled into the phone. “You never know with those two.”
He wished he found the dogs behavior as amusing as DJ. “I’m pulling over. Getting a closer look at what’s going on.” One foot out the door, the animals bolted away from him, barking and running toward a wisp of gray dusting the brightening, pristine skyline. “Oh, hell!”
“What?” All humor had fallen away from DJ’s tone.
“Better have Esther sound the alarm. North of the main road, five miles east of the ranch. The pot will have to wait. I’m on my way.”
Reed’s gut did a back flip. Only two possibilities in this direction. One of the Bradys had a small spread between the Farraday ranch and town. And then Chloe. Damn. Soon half the county would be descending on the volunteer station, but this far out of town it was up to the rancher—or widow—to control the burn.
Never before had he prayed so hard for the culprit to be a potentially catastrophic brush fire. Chloe didn’t need this. The dogs had disappeared into the pasture, but it made no difference, they’d alerted him to the fire. He reached for his cell and managed to scroll to Farraday.
Within seconds Aunt Eileen was on the other end.
“There’s smoke due east of you,” he said in a rush. “We could use your water trucks.”
He’d gone far enough to track the source. “Not that far.”
“Chloe.” Aunt Eileen’s words dripped with the same concern licking at his nerves.
The tiny clapboard house on the small plot of land in the middle of what most folks considered nowhere was a bargain for his buddy Pat. His little piece of heaven. Damn.
“I’ll alert Sean and Finn. The Bradys too. Consider us on our way.”
The call disconnected before he could grunt a response. He could have used Aunt Eileen in the Marine Corps.
By the time he’d reached the gateless dirt road ahead, there wasn’t any doubt. The wisp of gray plumes suddenly grew dark and thick. Reed’s stomach turned and he floored the gas pedal, flying over pot holes like Wylie Coyote chasing the Roadrunner. Except this was one race he couldn’t afford to lose.
* * * *
What in the name of all the heavens was that noise? Chloe Landon opened one eye. The sun was barely peeking through the blinds. According to the clock at her bedside, she had at least another hour before the girls awakened. It had taken just about all of Sarah’s two plus years to train her not to rise with the roosters. Not that she had any roosters, but this morning it sounded like a flock of nature’s alarm clock was scratching at her window.
Flinging the covers to one side, a loud bark broke the morning silence. Before her sleep-webbed brain could process the possibilities or her feet touched the floor, the sound of glass shattering filled the air.
“What the …” A gray bullet the size of a cannon shot toward her. Fear quickly pricked at her spine, her arm had already fumbled at the locked drawer where Pat had insisted she keep a gun when he wasn’t home. “Not that I expect trouble here,” he’d say, but you can’t be too sure.”
A bark pierced the memory and large, very sharp, and very pointy teeth latched onto the sleeve of the hand still fumbling with the locked drawer. Her heart lurched in her chest but, rather than gnaw on her for breakfast, the animal hopped off the bed and tugged her to the floor with him.
“Chloe?” The distant voice sounded frantic. “Chloe.” There was no mistaking the desperation in the rapid fire of her name. Or the voice. Reed. What the heck was he doing in her house, and at this hour?
The dog let go of her arm and circling around, nudged at her from the rear, almost toppling her forward. Another voice, a man’s voice, echoed Reed. Her mouth dropped open to shout only to have the dog bark instead, then snap at her nightgown in another effort to drag her forward.
“Her room is down this hall,” Reed shouted. “I’ll get the girls.”
Her girls! Like her husband had, she’d trust her life to Reed, but none of this made sense. Maneuvering around the dog hell bent on moving her in the opposite direction, she bolted towards her door as the stubborn animal leaned into her, shoving her toward the shards of broken glass scattered before her bedroom window.
“Chloe.” Sean Farraday came bursting through her door. “We have to get you out. Now.”
“What’s going on?” She batted at the dog once again grabbing for her skirt. Not till the patriarch’s strong hands grabbed her waist throwing her over his shoulder did she smell the smoke billowing into her room behind him. Smoke. Her girls! Pushing against a rock hard chest with all she had, she pounded on the man. “Put me down! The girls are upstairs.”
Never in her life did she think she would have to fight a man as nice as Sean Farraday when still holding her tight, he sprinted over the glass.
“Reed’s on it. We need to get you out.”
Words and air battled in her throat. “Emmie, Sarah,” she muttered as Sean shoved her, bottom first, out the window and into waiting arms.
Strong arms circled around her. “The sooner you stop kicking me, the sooner I can help Reed with the girls.”
It took a moment to process she was now battling Finn Farraday with the same force she’d beaten on his father.
“Anyone else inside beside the girls?” Finn asked.
She shook her head. Words still weren’t coming. She had to get back inside. Upstairs. The girls!
“The stairs are blocked.” Sean Farraday practically flew out the window and without breaking stride, ran around her house.
“Ma’am, you have to promise me you’ll stay here.” Finn looked totally torn between hanging onto her and bolting after his father. “We need water and I can’t do both.”
Her gaze shifted to the huge pickup truck with a massive water tank in the back and then she made the critical mistake of looking up. Orange flames shot through the roof. Her house – her girls—were on fire.
By the time Reed reached the inside of Chloe’s house, the flames had already swallowed the living room, robbing him of precious time. There was no way he could be in two ends of the house at once, and no way did he want to choose between saving Chloe or her daughters. Never had he been so thankful to see Sean Farraday come barreling through a doorway.
Confident that Chloe would be safe with the Farraday patriarch, he tore up the steps two a time. The heat on his back was scorching and the hardwood steps beneath his feet sank like sponge. Untucking the tail of his shirt, he raised it over his mouth. He had to get to the girls. This had to be a rescue. He could only hope that more help was on the way and fast, because there wasn’t a doubt in his mind he was not getting those two girls out of the house the same way he’d come in.
The closer he got to the opposite end of the second floor hallway, the harder moving forward became. The smoke had grown thick and black and he’d resorted to feeling his way down the hall, counting the doors, thanking God he didn’t feel the heat of burning flames through the walls. Though he rarely had reason to go upstairs, he did remember the second floor had two bedrooms, Chloe’s beloved walk-in Christmas closet that had made her giddy with delight the first time Pat had shown her the house, and a bathroom. Only one more door.
Heat from below seeped through the floors. His feet might as well have been on fire. Maybe they were. No time to think. Adrenaline coursed through his system. He couldn’t let Chloe down.
The few short steps to what should be the last door, Reed didn’t bother feeling for the heat. Whatever was on the other side, so were Emmie and Sarah. The palm of his hand stung as he turned the knob and shoved the door open, slamming it shut behind him. Nothing. He couldn’t see a damn thing. Down on all fours, he shouted for the girls and coughed on the smoke. Nothing.
“Emmie!” he choked. Silence. Damn.
The crashing sound of glass shattered the dread threatening to overtake him. This had to be a rescue, he silently repeated. Water poured in. Help had arrived. If they knew which room to douse, then Chloe must have told them which was the girls’ room. Chloe had to be okay. The moment of relief passed too quickly to relish. The girls.
At this point, if not for the water gushing in the window, he wouldn’t know which end was which in the room. “Emmie!” he called out again. This time he thought he’d heard a tiny sound. Scurrying toward the window and the single bed, he flung his hands across the top. Empty. It would probably be too much to hope a five and two year old would have gone low and under the bed. Calling their names again and waving his arms, his heart sank just a bit to search underneath and come up empty again.
Another bed. There was another bed in the room, but not another sound.
“Reed!” Connor Farraday called to him from the window. “You got the girls?”
“Damn,” the neighboring Farraday muttered. “I’m coming in.”
“Hang on,” Reed called back. His knee had slammed into a hard surface. The footboard of the second bed. Repeating the same searching move he’d done with the other bed, Reed’s heart finally did a quickstep. A massive lump lie under the covers. He prayed to God there were two little girls breathing clean air underneath. “Emmie!”
A small voice drifted out from an opening at the top of the sheets. “Uncle Reed?”
Emmie. “Yes, honey. Is Sarah with you?”
He wasn’t totally sure, but he was willing to bet Emmie had just nodded at him.
At this point he couldn’t see his hands in front of his own face. Pulling at Emmie, placing her over his shoulder and keeping some of the covers over her body, he felt the tug from beside her. Yes! “Over here!” he called to Connor.
The room barely had enough space to hold two beds and a dresser, but his voice was the only thing that would give Connor direction.
“The guys are doing their best,” Connor held his arms out, “but we need to boogie. The place is crumbling.”
Handing the older of the two girls to his friend, Reed nodded and snuggled Sarah close against him. A single thin blanket covered her, the only protection he had for the young child. The window only steps away, as Connor’s head descended on the opposite side of the missing glass, the vise squeezing his heart eased a fraction. Another few moments and both of Chloe’s girls would be safe. The roar of commotion outside carried up to him. Chloe’s voice frantically screaming for her child as Connor reached the ground with Emmie.
Underneath his feet, the floorboards rumbled, a roar reached his ears and he knew. Time had just run out. The boom that followed blew the door off the hinges and the consuming flames burst inside chasing them like the hounds of hell. Heaven help him, he had no choice. Thrust forward the last step, he managed one word. “Catch!”
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