When a lawman goes rogue to save an outlaw’s daughter, there’s more than hearts and treasure at stake.
Jenny has memories of a happy childhood, of love and laughter. Then her mother’s death took everything away and created a monster in the man Jenny called Dad. Her father turned out to be one of the worst outlaws in THE WEST. Determined to escape the stigma of being herself, Jenny goes on the run for most of her life.
Until she comes full circle and meets her half-sisters. Now, there’s a treasure to be found, sisters to save, and the remnants of her dead father’s gang who are hell-bent on getting to them all first.
Alone, Jenny can’t survive. She’s taken on too much with very little payoff and she’s been running for years.
With so much at stake, Jenny needs Jason more than she’ll admit. And Jason… well, Jason aches to have Jenny as his very own. He can’t turn away from the opportunity to save his name and hers, but if he goes back to being an upright lawman, he can’t love the outlaw’s daughter.
With Jason, maybe, just maybe Jenny can find everything she’s been searching for, unless he returns to the badge he grew up to be.
Damn him. Damn everything about him. If not for him, Jenny wouldn’t have needed to leave home in the first place.
The last time Jenny was so close to Colby and inside the Clearwater County boundary, she’d been running from Devlyn.
The man responsible for her nightmares.
And the loss of her dreams.
Running was being kind. If she remembered correctly, when she tried running, her tears had blurred her sight and she ran into a lot of trees and tripped a couple times. To this day she regretted not galloping away on her horse. Echo, the white and black spotted mare she loved so much, would have carried Jenny far.
Okay, far for a ten-year-old girl.
Jenny had run onto the Salish reservation because she didn’t know anywhere else that was close enough.
The people there were kind, sweet, and offered comfort and housing. Especially her friend Thomas Redbird and his family. So giving and loving.
They’d understood her fear because Devlyn’s gang had just started building their reputation.
The Salish believed back then that the Caracus gang wouldn’t be able to cause terror on the reservation, only in the white community. Why would they have worried about any consequences involved with taking Jenny in? A child?
No one had.
Jenny shook off a shiver. Thoughts about her past always brought goosebumps to her arms.
Driving through the Clearwater County borders, only a mile from the Salish territory, she couldn’t escape the past. All of Montana and bits of Wyoming became her home for almost twenty years, and yet this was where her mom was buried. This was where she avoided returning, because Clearwater County was a guaranteed place she’d be caught.
Every time she got wind someone was searching for her she ran like hell. Especially when that someone was Devlyn Caracus or Joaquin Mendez. Hell, any of the Caracus gang.
But they were arrested and she thought she could breathe easy. Until she found out her uncle was still on the loose.
Jenny raised her shoulders, pushing them back. She leaned her head back, and then stretched her neck to the sides. Her butt might have become a part of that dang seat since she sat in it for hours now, crossing the expansive plains and into the foothills of the purple mountains.
Her last sweet tea was getting to her, making her bladder hurt.
A green reflective ‘rest stop’ sign flashed back at her from the side of the road. Saved from having to squat in the bushes. Finally, a little luck on her side would do the trick.
Glancing in the mirror, Jenny groaned, turning the wheel with the exit’s approach. Yeah, she needed to wash her face and rebraid her hair. Bathing in the river yesterday to conserve any money she had, she didn’t feel safe anywhere. Trying to sleep in the car while on the side of the road down by Missoula the night before, Jenny couldn’t relax.
Not truly relax.
The rest stop matched every other one of its kind along the major highways in the state. Well maintained parking surrounded by landscaped grassy areas, multiple picnic benches and sporadic informational boards dotted the clearing surrounded by thick forest.
Jenny parked, slumping into her seat. She closed her eyes for a moment, resting them after driving all day and most of the night.
Clouds covered the stars and the moon’s glow barely broke through to light the lonesome highway as she drove, but now dawn tinged the edges of the sky with pinks, oranges, and purples.
Sporadic cars had passed, but Jenny refused to be rushed. She didn’t need to break any records. Besides speeding brought the unwanted attention of police. She didn’t want them to find her either.
She chuckled, the sound hollow inside the lonely car.
Who wasn’t looking for her? Police joined that list a long time before, too. First, because she was termed a runaway. But it quickly changed when she followed in her father’s footsteps.
She stole money when she couldn’t find odd jobs to get her cash.
Devlyn used to say she and her mom were his everything.
Of course, he lied. The bastard. Before she ran away, her father had changed toward her and said horribly mean things, said that if she left him he would find her – someone would find her.
And because of him, she had to keep on running.
Her dad told everyone she was the key to finding his treasure.
His, stupid, mountainous, stolen money and treasure.
When he was alive, Devlyn made sure Jenny couldn’t return to Clearwater County and search for the treasure, find the missing pieces of her life, or even find out if Mary was okay.
Jenny blew her side bangs out of her face and grabbed the keys dangling from the ignition and the thick strap of her hiking backpack. All she owned was in that pack, except for her car and a pillow and blanket in the back seat. She didn’t do material possessions much because those got stolen.
With a thief and murderer for a father, a girl learned not to trust anyone.
She locked the door behind her, hefting the heavy bag higher up her hips and shoulders. Her sunglasses smacked her chest as she moved. She forgot she’d hooked them on the neckline of her sweatshirt at sunset.
Scouting out the empty rest area, Jenny fit a key between each finger with the long parts poking out like a hokey version of the Wolverine.
A girl couldn’t be too careful and Jenny knew how to fight.
The ladies’ bathroom was around back, the universal sign for women painted neatly onto the brown wall.
Lights popped on when Jenny walked inside the well-maintained bathroom.
She used the closest stall, dropping her bag inside the door.
Finally relieved, she sighed, washing her hands and then splashing water on her face. She gave up on warm water long ago. Couldn’t remember the last hot shower she took. Or even the hottest meal. Stopping at restaurants wasn’t the most economical or feasible when you never knew who was after you. Plus, living off what she stole forced her to be as thrifty as possible.
Yeah, she was a hypocrite and it stung.
She didn’t meet her blue eyes in the mirror. They would glare accusingly at her. Instead, she wiped at her skin with rough scratchy paper towels and retrieved her small hairbrush in the front pocket of her pack. Raking the bristles through her hair, she set it aside and quickly plaited her thick blonde hair into a tight rope. When she dropped the completed braid, the weight of the tail smacked her in the back, the thud dull through her sweatshirt.
Thank goodness the summer nights in Montana only got brisk for an hour or so in the earliest part of the morning. She didn’t have a winter coat yet for the upcoming season.
Jenny cupped her hand under the faucet and drank the cool liquid. She wouldn’t be drinking sweet tea while driving again because then she would have to pee in another couple hours.
Nothing was worse than stopping just to use the bathroom. Seemed like such a waste of time.
Yanking the pack to her shoulders again, she rearranged the keys between her fingers and tucked the loose hair behind her ear. Another thing to rethink the next time she cut her hair would be side bangs. Stupid things never stayed put.
Leaving the bathroom, Jenny slowed at the sight of bright lights beside her car. She stepped back behind the corner and peeked around the jagged edge of the cement wall. Why were they parked right next to her car when the entire parking lot was empty? She didn’t even choose spots close to the building in order to avoid this exact thing.
She squinted at the vehicles, gasping and jerking back at the dark, square angles of the cop lights on top of the newly arrived car.
Great. Just great. She worked whenever she could and saved her money from when she was thirteen to seventeen to buy her dang car, and now the cops were going to have it. Frustration made her bite the inside of her cheek to keep from cursing out loud.
At least she was inside the county limits of where she was headed.
Oh, but she was going to miss her pillow and blanket, too.
Without glancing back, Jenny slipped the second strap onto her other shoulder and clipped the waist strap shut around her middle. From the women’s door, it was a straight shot to the forest edge and dim hiking paths out of sight of the cars. Jenny lifted the hood of her sweatshirt to cover her hair and hold in as much heat as she could.
On foot, she should make the reservation sometime later that afternoon.
Until then, she needed to keep her head down and eyes and ears open.
If the cops found her, they wouldn’t be far behind.
Plus, she’d just stepped onto their turf.
Jason narrowed his eyes, leaning toward the radio box. “What do you mean she’s not there? It’s her car, right? You ran the plates?” He refused to be disappointed yet again.
“Yes, sir.” The speakers crackled and the deputy’s voice beeped back into the silent car.
Shaking his head, Jason placed both hands on the steering wheel. He squeezed his fingers, desperate to release the tension in his hands and back.
How long had he chased Jenny? Since before he learned about the stupid treasure from his less-than-ideal father.
Since they were kids.
He still remembered the last time he saw her. He couldn’t get her out of his mind. Even if he wanted to, he never forgot her.
Didn’t help that he was always just a step behind her. Always.
Early morning light glinted off metal flecks in the green roadside sign. He was almost to the rest stop where the deputy had reported her last sighting.
One thing he learned as he followed her signs over the years, she wouldn’t leave her car unless she was absolutely forced to.
Where did she go? Would she be back?
Had she been kidnapped? Fear that his two-steps-behind might hurt her more than him had him pressing on the gas when he should have been slowing down.
Jason turned slightly onto the exit to the rest stop, forcing himself to slow down and park alongside the economical beige Honda sedan.
Jenny wasn’t flashy. Wherever she went she didn’t seek out glitz or fanciful notions.
One time he followed her to a flower shop, not long before her mama died, and Jason couldn’t look away as Jenny stared longingly at the simple blue forget-me-nots and ignored the intricate bouquets of roses and other fancy flowers most women swooned over.
He could still feel the softness of her corn-silk colored hair running through his fingers when they played tag and he almost grabbed her.
The local deputy paced in front of the empty car, his smile tight as he nodded in Jason’s direction.
Turning off his engine, Jason perused the surroundings. A rest stop, wide grassy areas, and some picnic tables. The forest line promised unfiltered secrets and Jason didn’t doubt for one moment Jenny was in the trees.
Climbing from the car, Jason patted his gun in its holster as a habit. He returned the nod from the deputy and continued searching the landscape. Was she watching them?
He closed the door, rounding the hood. He motioned toward Jenny’s car. “I want this impounded. Don’t leave it unattended until the tow gets here.” He had to draw her out, and if he had her car… well, there weren’t many places she could go without it.
“Yes, sir. The truck’s already on its way.” The deputy stood at attention, waiting for more direction.
Considering he wasn’t there legally, Jason tried leaving a good impression. He offered a smile. “Thanks for your help, Officer Orville. I’m from this area. It’s always nice to work with local law enforcement from home.”
“Thank you.” The deputy reached out and offered his hand.
Jason accepted. “You’ve done good work. I’ll take it from here, if you’ll just stay until it’s towed.” Asking Officer Orville for more might require paperwork Jason wasn’t ready to fill out. How did he say, yeah, sure that’s authorized when he wasn’t even supposed to be there? He was supposed to be in sunny Cabo San Lucas. Plus, he didn’t need anyone helping in any chases. His leave from work wasn’t anyone’s business, least of all the backwater townsfolk of Colby, Clearwater County, Montana.
The deputy sat in his car, waiting with the doors shut just as Jason requested.
Jenny wasn’t there. Jason could feel her absence. He could almost taste her nearness, but she wasn’t there and probably wouldn’t be back any time soon.
Crossing the parking lot, he ducked into the ladies’ room. She had used the facilities, she must have. When she was on the road, Jenny didn’t stop unless absolutely necessary.
He’d learned a lot over the years from following her.
Tracing his finger over the edge of the sink, cool water greeting his touch, Jason glanced around the cement walled room. She was the last one to use the sink. A shiver coursed over him. He was so close.
His superiors had given him a priority call the last time he was that close and he was forced to abandon the chase.
But since he was on leave, his superiors wouldn’t bother him. At least not for a few more days. He could shrink the distance between Jenny and himself. Get closer.
Maybe catch up to her.
Maybe see her again since she’d disappeared from his life.
Returning to his car, Jason popped the trunk. A survival pack swung easily onto his back. He clipped the waist strap shut and settled the bag more securely on his wide shoulders.
He’d never gotten into the cowboy hat thing. The one he had on standby in case of sun or rain glared at him from its position in the farthest corner of the trunk. Even though he hated the thing, he grabbed the crown and settled its brown body on his head. The practicality of the hat was too high to ignore. The wide brim would keep moisture off his neck as well as sunlight. Who knew how long he would be outside searching for her.
Paths past the barbecue area seemed as good a place as any to start. They were a straight line from the bathrooms and headed toward the Salish reservation. Jenny seemed to have a proclivity for the area. Jason wouldn’t know for sure until he could ask her.
He couldn’t wait to ask her so many things.
How much would she remember?
She was his first kiss and the memory hadn’t dimmed a bit.
Wiping at the fine perspiration on her brow, Jenny stopped and leaned against the rough bark of a pine tree.
Running away at the age of ten and getting to the Salish reservation was a lot easier when she’d crossed plains and hadn’t been worried about people chasing her. Hiking trails crawled up and down the mountain ridges. But the trails didn’t lead anywhere in particular and Jenny’s route moved northwest.
She crossed a few paths and finally went rogue, picking her way through bushes and sporadic clearings. Judging by the sun, she was going in approximately the right direction. Under the forest canopy though she couldn’t tell for sure and confusion and fatigue were setting in.
And she had to pee again.
Her pay-as-you-go phone didn’t have a signal.
Stupid, cheap thing.
She refused using anything which required credit and most of the time the quality of what she ended up buying was less than satisfactory. She only had a post office box in Missoula because she needed an address to own a car.
If she could get to the reservation, she could work at the Redbird casino. She worked there before as a dishwasher and they assured her a job should she ever wander that way again.
Jenny desperately needed some time to shore up her financial reserves and get a good look at the Colby area.
And… she needed to get in touch with Mary Caracus. The girl didn’t know it, but they were sisters. If Mary knew anything more about Devlyn, or why he had become the way he had, Jenny would be willing to cut her in on the treasure. Heck, maybe Mary already knew where the Caracus treasure was hidden.
Maybe Mary had already claimed it.
That particular possibility made Jenny’s desperation claw its way up her back.
Jenny didn’t live on the run her entire life to let anyone else get that money. She deserved it. She’d earned it.
Who was she kidding? She didn’t want the money. She didn’t have a terrible life. She just wanted the treasure her father had made her leave behind. The one thing that mattered since her mother’s death. A chance at one last connection with Mom.
The sun reached its zenith in the sky, unrelenting in its energy. Jenny hated the bright exuberance as she tried slowing her breathing.
A snap of a twig in the distance carried over the unmoving forest air. Her breath caught and she dug her fingernails into the uneven texture of the bark. She was feet from another trail, and as soon as she caught her breath she could start climbing up the rocky terrain.
Calm down, Jenny. No one can find you. You left the car. They don’t know where you are. You’re not even on any distinct paths. Breathe. She closed her eyes and blew hard through her lips.
She was going crazy. She must be. Her paranoia had reached some kind of a level where it created hallucinations. She became that woman who claimed aliens impregnated her while she ate at the local diner.
Jenny hung her head, pushing at her thick braid, tendrils clinging to her damp neck.
The reservation couldn’t be too far away.
If someone followed her, hopefully they would be noisy. She could slip behind a bush or something to hide.
Pushing off from the tree, she lifted her gaze, ready to tackle the trail slowly rising up the mountain side.
A man stood before her, one hand to the side and the other positioned on a gun holster at his waist. Dark, long hair hung past the dingy collar of his brown duster. A red and white band encircled his forehead around to the back. His proud brow and austere cheekbones heightened the brightness of brown eyes, narrowed with intense hatred.
Had the gang found her?
“Who are you?” Jenny’s only weapon was pepper spray she stole from a Wal-Mart on the other side of the state. She never had to use it and she probably wouldn’t get to then either. The stupid container was in the back pocket of her pack.
“They call me Bear Claw.” He lifted his chin, sparse sunlight highlighting his nose, leaving his eyes in shadow.
Jenny curled her lip and arched her eyebrow. “Okay, but what did your parents name you?” Her last stay on the Salish reservation had enlightened her as to the ways of boys –even Salish boys liked to play bigger than they were.
Plus, ‘don’t show fear’ was her motto.
He ignored her question. “My father told me stories of the broken child who would return one day. She would be searching for the rewards of her father’s evil deeds. He promised she would come by the borders out of memory and she would know where to find the white man’s riches.” He stepped closer, his dirty black work boots the opposite of moccasins, heavy and loud as they trod on the forest floor.
“Why are you talking like that? You sound like a bad imitation of The Last of the Mohicans.” Jenny played stupid, but only because she couldn’t see a direct route away from him. “Start over. You want a child? ‘Cause I don’t have one. And you and I are not making one.” How was that for bravado?
Within arms’ reach, he stretched out his hand so fast she didn’t have a chance to duck. His palm cracked into the side of her cheek, the resounding smack as startling as the intense pain shooting across her face. “No! You and your razor tongue. I want the treasure and I know you’re the broken child. You have the Caracus eyes.”
How did he know about Devlyn’s eyes? Pressing her fingers to her stinging cheek, Jenny turned halfway from him so her shoulder would bear the brunt of any more of his assaults.
There was nowhere to run.
The path she wanted to follow faded behind him and curved to her right, but he moved to stand in front of her, blocking either direction. With his proximity, she didn’t have far to go.
Over his shoulder, the movement of a large painted horse caught her eye. The animal lifted its head to slowly glance over its shoulder and then returned to grazing on grass at the base of the tree it was tied to. No help there.
He moved close enough the odor of chewing tobacco hit her hot in the face. “That money could save this reservation, save my family’s honor. You’re going to give it to me.”
“I don’t have it.” Jenny held her hands to her sides. “Seriously, you think I have that much money on me? Are you crazy?” Probably not what she should have said considering his eyes darkened and his mouth tightened.
He stepped closer, if that was possible. He slowly brought up his forearm and pressed the solid line into her neck. “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to kill you.” He applied pressure to her airway, his eyes trained on hers.
Holding his gaze, Jenny shook her head as much as his hold would allow – which wasn’t much more than a centimeter. “No, you won’t.”
He pressed harder, growling. “Try me.”
Bringing her arms up to his chest, she pushed him and gained an extra bit of space to inhale quickly and scream. No one would hear her. She wasn’t stupid, but she had to scream, to release her mounting terror so she could figure out a way to escape.
He moved toward her, snarling. Jenny ducked, missing his swinging fist seconds before it connected with the tree. She rolled to the side, arms curled around her head for added protection, but she didn’t move fast enough.
Bear Claw’s body weight slammed on top of her and he grunted as his hands sought more of a handhold on her body. “Hold still, you stupid —”
And then he was gone. The crunching sound of brush and body as he landed a few feet away pulled her from her hiding position under her meager arms.
The sight of a new stranger with a lighter visage had her scrambling backwards until her shoulder blades connected with the rounded surface of a sapling. She stared up at the man, familiar features of a memory etched into the chiseled lines of his face.
A very attractive man.
With a badge and a gun.
Just her luck.