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The man known lately as Kane Travis stood staring at a sight he’d never thought to see. The green waves of the Northern Lights rippled in amazing motion across the dark sky. He could still see some stars through the green, as if it were nothing more than a veil, some thin curtain blowing in the wind. Except there was no wind—it was dead calm, which made it all the more eerie.
He’d never thought to see any stars that could rival those over Texas, but he was thinking Alaska might give them a run.
And he wasn’t going to start thinking about Texas again. He’d had thirteen years now to break that habit, and he was beyond disgusted at himself for how easy it was to slide back into it, back to those early days when it had been a deep, solid, ever-present ache inside him.
I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. And it’s as far away as I can get from Texas.
He hadn’t said that last sentence aloud to the captain of the fishing boat Kenai King, not when he was essentially begging a ride from him. When the man had asked him if he was running from something, his answer had been, “Just myself.” He hadn’t wanted the man to think he was a criminal on the lam.
Of course, there was still and always the distinct possibility he was exactly that. For all he knew he was on a wanted poster back in Last Stand. He’d run checks, when he could be reasonably certain of not being tracked, and had never found anything indicating he—or anyone—was wanted in the death of Police Chief Steven Highwater. Of course it had been thirteen years, but he doubted the very public death of a police chief would ever be forgotten.
He no longer had the instinctive, cringing reaction he’d once had when he thought of it, a sort of internal cry of “I didn’t mean it!”
Because he was no longer sure he hadn’t.
He was no longer sure of much of anything about the first sixteen years of his life.
He stared up at the light show above him, and focused on how even knowing how and why it happened didn’t take away any of the magic of it. As he looked, the back of his neck started to itch. He reached up, tugged off the heavy, woolen knit cap, and rammed a hand through his tangled hair. The hat served its purpose in keeping him warm, but he hated the feel of it. He’d grown up wearing cowboy hats, and anything else still felt strange.
And there he was, mentally back in Texas yet again. He tried to corral his thoughts by grabbing a handful of the hair that reached down past his ears and giving it a yank.
You need to borrow a pair of scissors somewhere and whack this off. Or just do it with the knife.
He pulled the hat back on. Summer was nearing, but last night they’d had a cold snap—unusual, or so Jay at the coffee shop said—and it had dropped back down into the twenties. Of course the average daytime highs here in the summer were cool even for nighttime in Texas.
He watched until the light show faded, watched his breath swirl out into the cold air for a while, thinking about the vastness of this place he’d only seen the barest edge of.
Guess I should be glad climbing Denali wasn’t on the list.
But he wasn’t glad. Because this was the last stop. The end of that list, or at least all he’d set out to do. He’d accomplished it all, seen all the places except the one he couldn’t; it was in no way feasible, so the beaches of Honolulu would not see him. So in essence, it was done. Thirteen years of hand-to-mouth living, skating by, always looking over his shoulder. When he went back to the tiny storeroom above the general store where he was sleeping these days, he would get out that now tattered and worn list, and cross off that last item. The list of a lifetime, written by a man who hadn’t had that lifetime to see it through.
Thanks to you.
But it was done. He was done with the task he’d never really expected to finish.
And now he had no idea what he was going to do.
Lark Leclair sat up groggily, so sleepy she wasn’t even awake enough to get angry about the double attack that had awakened her on the one morning she’d planned to sleep in. Yet.
The rhythmic thumps from her right told her Jimmy Alvarez was wide awake and bouncing his soccer ball in the apartment again. The more uneven thumps against the wall to her left told her Lena had brought another one home last night; the woman seemed to think by sleeping with as many men as her ex-husband had women she was somehow evening the score.
Lark rose hastily and headed for her bathroom before she had to listen to screaming from both sides: Anita, Jimmy’s sweet mom yelling at him to stop, and Lena at the man of the moment to keep going. She should have gone to her parents’ house in Austin last night instead of waiting until today. At least she would have had some peace.
She seriously considered decamping to the living room, but it wouldn’t be any quieter there, where the noise from an awakening Last Stand would be rising. Maybe she should just curl up on the floor here in the bathroom and try to grab another hour. But she knew if she did she’d only feel worse than she felt now. It would take her until noon to really wake up. What she wouldn’t give to move to a place where the only noise was the wind in the trees or the occasional bawl of a cow. She was going to have to put that higher on the list. Maybe at the top, now that she was finally financially even.
Serves you right, trying to be everyone’s savior and spending yourself into a hole doing it.
She sighed as the tired old self-lecture went through her head again. Tired because she knew she was incapable of having done it any differently. When her job had been kids at risk, she didn’t just go to the extent of her authority with Child Protective Services to help them; she had all too often delved into her own pocket to help them more, even if it was only a small toy or stuffed animal to truly call their own. Or given them one of the picture books she’d written and had printed, at her own expense, with a story that often gave them hope.
But it had also cost her so much more, darn near including her health. As she’d been told three years ago.
You cannot keep this up, Lark. It’s eating you alive because you can’t save them all. You’re only twenty-eight, but you are a wreck. For someone your age, you’re a disaster, to put it bluntly.
But they need someone who honestly cares, who will fight for them.
Yes. But you keep this up and you won’t be fighting for anyone.
Lark knew Doc McBride had been right, and that she’d had to leave. And she couldn’t deny she was much happier, healthier, and almost out of debt now that she’d been working for Building Families. The job at the private adoption agency had saved her.
Between yawns as she turned on the shower and grabbed a clean towel she spared yet another moment of thanks for Last Stand Police Chief—and her friend—Shane Highwater, who had recommended she talk to them when he’d encountered her sobbing openly after her last case, the case that had broken her, of a little boy she’d been ordered to return to the mother’s custody. An order that had resulted in the boy’s death three months later. Had it not been for his wise counsel that night…
She was still pondering the turn her life had taken as she walked the short distance to Java Time, wondering if there was enough caffeine in the world to get her going this morning. And nearly collided with a man headed for the same place.
“Sorry,” they said simultaneously, and both laughed. And laughed again when they realized they knew each other.
“Scott!” she exclaimed.
He looked a little surprised. What, he hadn’t expected her to remember him? The guy who had made one of her dearest friends so happy it almost hurt to be around her?
“Lark,” he acknowledged, holding the door and gestured her in rather gallantly.
“Hi, Lark,” Mike said from behind the counter. “The usual?”
“Hold the whipped cream and add a shot of espresso,” she said ruefully. “I need the caffeine.”
Mike laughed and turned to make the drink. Lark turned back to the man behind her. “How’s Sage? It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve talked to her, and I’ve been working on a complex case and haven’t seen her in over a month.”
But when she had seen the youngest Highwater sibling, she’d looked happier than Lark had ever seen her. And Lark knew it was thanks to this man, one-time Last Stand bad boy Scott Parrish, home from his stint in the Marines.
“She’s good.” His smile broadened, and changed, and Lark guessed he was the big reason her friend had been otherwise occupied. And she could guess doing what; Scott Parrish was a thoroughly sexy guy.
She took the cup Mike held out, stepped back and waited until he made a quick order of plain black coffee. Scott took it, paid, took a sip and then looked over the rim of his cup at her. “You’re coming with us to Oklahoma City, right?”
She knew he meant the NRHA Derby, the big reining competition that Sage’s beloved Poke was entered in. Sage had high hopes, and although she didn’t know that much about it, Lark loved horses and thought the sweet dun was wonderful. She’d watched Sage work him a couple of times, and what she got out of that horse was, to her eyes, remarkable.
“I’d planned on it,” she said.
“Good. I want everybody who’ll go there to cheer them on.”
“And console her if it doesn’t go well?” she guessed.
“That, too,” he agreed. “But I think it’ll be fine. They’re an amazing team.”
She nodded. “They are. And she’s so happy I think Poke has caught her mood.”
This time he grinned. “I hope so.”
“Now that you’re back, if they could just find her brother I think her world would be complete again. At least, as complete as it can be.” She knew the Highwaters would forever feel the loss of their father, the man all of Last Stand had looked up to and respected. Although his eldest son, who had eventually stepped into those police chief boots, was doing a fine job of gaining that same kind of standing, and no one knew that better than her.
“Sage and I got closer than we’ve ever been to finding him,” he said.
“What you found out in Seattle? Sage told me there’d been great progress, but we didn’t get into detail before my work got complicated. Not to mention she’s been a little…distracted,” she teased.
“So have I,” he admitted with an endearing smile. But what happened was, someone there recognized a picture of him.”
She blinked. A picture? “From when he was…what, sixteen?” That didn’t seem likely, since he’d be twenty-nine now.
Scott smiled. “No,” he said, pulling out his phone. “A picture Sean had aged up. Now we know it’s pretty accurate.”
He held it out for her to see, and her breath caught. Kane had been two years behind her in school, but every girl there could pick out the youngest Highwater boy. There was just something about him. All the Highwaters were almost unfairly attractive, but Kane Highwater had been—and apparently still was—wildly beautiful. The near-perfect features, the dark hair that had always been a bit too long, and those striking hazel eyes that had sometimes looked green, sometimes gold, sometimes light brown.
“I’d think he’d be pretty unforgettable,” she said quietly.
“That’s what the volunteer at the pop culture museum said,” Scott answered with a crooked smile. “But now we know where he was less than four months ago. We’re getting closer.”
Lark smiled back at him. She liked the way he kept saying “we.” To her it meant the Highwaters had accepted him completely, in a way Sage had told her his own blood family never had. And when they said goodbye, her sending with him a promise to call Sage and finalize their plans, the smile lingered.
Good for them. They deserve the fine reputation they have in Last Stand.
But did Kane Highwater deserve it, too? You couldn’t have been in Last Stand at the time of former Chief Highwater’s death and not have heard the rumors. She discounted 90 percent of what she heard generally, but suspicions in such a high-profile incident were long-lived. Kane had always had a reputation for being a bit tempestuous anyway, and when coupled with the circumstances of what had happened, it was easy for people who generally assumed the worst anyway to assume it had been more than a tragic accident.
But if Lark had learned anything in her five years with CPS it was to never assume you knew all of the truth based on what people said had happened. Especially when dealing with kids—and Kane had still been one at the time—the why sometimes far outweighed the what.
The image of that photograph, of what he looked like now, lingered in her mind all the way to Austin.
And her tender heart ached for the boy he’d been.
End of Excerpt