What happens when you move three thousand miles away but still can’t outrun the nightmare?
Fleeing from haunting memories, former U.S. Marshal Jack Butler winds up next door to his biggest nightmare: an attractive widow and her troubled daughter—a teen who reminds him of a past he’s yet to make peace with.
Maggie Bradshaw is struggling to raise a rebellious teen and to forgive in-laws who betrayed her in her time of greatest need…but her new neighbor is a godsend. Her daughter Lexi needs a positive influence in her life, and a law enforcement officer is the perfect choice.
Unfortunately, Jack isn’t interested in helping...until a stray dog walks into all their lives.
Can God use a grieving daughter and a stray dog with an ulterior motive to bring healing to all?
The first sound that filtered into Jack Butler’s ears was the whimper of Tim Whitman’s little boy as he cried out for his father. Something inside Jack shifted, and only then did he relax his grip on the man’s neck. A thought began to form but froze immediately as his heart raced ahead.
“Get off him! Now!” Jack heard Sheriff Calhoun’s words as though they came out of a wind tunnel. Get it together, Jack. Snap out of it. Now.
He knew what he had to do, but men like Tim Whitman didn’t help.
Tim’s face was contorted in a snarl, and he stared at Jack like a pit bull about to pounce. Jack wanted to warn him that the last man to look at him that way had ended on his stomach in handcuffs, but that was more than a year ago. And he wasn’t a U.S. Marshal any longer.
Red faced, Tim rubbed his neck. “Did you see that? He tried to kill me!”
“You’re fine,” Jack said as he took a slow deep breath the way the doctor in Virginia had recommended. Deep breaths. As many as it takes. I’ll be fine.
“I’ll have your badge, you lunatic!” Tim stumbled, bracing himself against the front door.
The scent of gun powder competed with the strong scent of whiskey. Jack shook his head. The whiskey scent was happening now, and the gun powder was only a memory. He wasn’t in Virginia; he was in California, and Tim didn’t have a gun in his hands even though he was a bully. Jack hated a bully.
“Let’s all calm down. From where I stood, Tim, you shoved my deputy. That was an assault on my officer.” Sheriff Calhoun stood between them and spoke in even, measured tones, one arm extended toward Jack and the other toward Tim.
“Yeah? We’ll see if a court of law sees it the same way.” Tim threw open the ornate front door of his sprawling mansion and slammed it behind him.
Next time I’ll throw the guy on the ground and give him a taste of his own medicine. I’m in trouble anyway.
Jack and Sheriff Calhoun were responding to a disturbance call made by Mrs. Mock, who lived next door to the Whitman family. When they arrived, Tim had shoved Jack. Mistake number one.
Calhoun gave him the thousand-yard stare. “You know, the biggest problem we’ve had today was you, Jack. Get it together.”
“I don’t care if he’s a big time attorney. He’s a mean drunk. I’m not surprised a man who defends rapists and murderers would knock his wife around.” When he’d stepped between Tim and his wife, the last thing Jack clearly recalled was being shoved. After that, everything else faded into the pounding of blood in his eardrums as he grabbed Tim by the collar and pushed him up against his front door.
Calhoun glared at Jack. “You let me do the talking now.”
Jack took several paces back to stand by the cruiser as Calhoun knocked on the door and spoke with Mrs. Whitman again. She was a petite, dark-haired woman with frightened eyes. He’d seen those eyes before. Like those of a wounded animal, seeking cover. Behind her, in the shadows, for the first time Jack noticed a teenaged boy standing to her right. And even though the air appeared to be calm for the moment, Jack stayed alert, resting his hand on his Glock. He’d seen these situations turn in an instant. But try telling that to a Sheriff who had ruled a small town where the worst of the criminals were two faced men like Tim Wright. Calhoun believed in the best of everyone, and from the way he smiled as he spoke with Mrs. Whitman they could have been talking about the weather.
It might also take Jack thirty years on the job to have that kind of peace while walking through the messes that people made of their lives, but he hoped not. He didn’t have that kind of time, not if he wanted to get back home to Virginia where he belonged.
Calhoun handed her a card, and she glanced behind her before she took it. Another tell-tale sign. The woman was terrified of her husband. She closed the front door, and Calhoun ambled back to the cruiser.
“She said it was her fault, and it won’t happen again,” Calhoun said.
Jack shook his head. “What a load of—”
“Enough, son. We’ll talk about this when we get back to the station.”
“Sorry, but I can’t apologize. How many times have we been out here? The man is a menace. Not only does he make a mockery out of the justice system, he terrorizes his wife and kids. When he makes it home from his media appearances.”
Tim Whitman was a high profile criminal defense attorney probably only interested in making money, along with a sprinkle or two of fame. Jack had personally witnessed attorneys like Tim defend the indefensible and unravel months of tedious police work.
They drove outside the entryway of the gated community, where the most economically privileged in Harte’s Peak resided, and toward downtown and the tiny sheriff’s office nestled between the store fronts on Main Street. Not for the first time, he gazed in awe of the tall pine trees surrounding them. Sometimes, if he timed it right, the view could calm him. He breathed in now, as his heartbeat slowed to its normal rhythm.
Harte’s Peak had turned out to be the perfect place to hide. He’d read that in the 1950s a small group of communists intent on overthrowing the government had holed up in a cabin in Harte’s Peak while on the run from the FBI. An interesting bit of trivia he’d found hidden in a small book about the history of the town. The small resort town prided itself on its reputation as being the gateway to the Sierras and the town’s lake was a majestic beauty. Only a fifteen-mile drive away in the nearby town of Pinecrest stood one of the top ranked ski resorts in the country.
Right or wrong, he’d wound up here after taking a leave from the U.S. Marshals service six months ago.
“‘A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.’ Proverbs 29:11. Have you ever heard that before, Jack?” Calhoun interrupted his thoughts.
Not again. Calhoun was a religious man who gave Jack a Bible his first week on the job. “I can’t say that I have, but then again, I’m no altar boy.”
Religion was fine for some people, but it was a crutch he didn’t need. So he lost his temper every now and then, but at home in Virginia, no one had ever faulted him for getting a bit hotheaded at times. If the sheriff had walked in his shoes for one day, he would have bet money he’d now be using that Bible as a paperweight.
“You can say that again. Listen, this tough guy façade will only get you so far. I understand your frustration, but you need to let the system work.”
Oh, that was a rich one. Let the system work. Well, he’d tried that over the last ten years, and so far, he couldn’t see that the system did much but serve as a revolving door. “And in the meantime what are we supposed to do? Should I have let him punch his wife right in front of us?”
Calhoun shook his head. “I’m not saying that, but maybe there was something you could have done between that and nearly strangling the man.”
He’d done no such thing, but recognized this was yet another battle he would not win. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re right. It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t.” Calhoun said. “I’ll make sure of that, son.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“It’s not. I’ve been praying for you. And I won’t stop until you’ve forgiven yourself.”
Jack tensed. He didn’t like when Calhoun brought up forgiveness. Calhoun was one of only two people in town who knew Jack’s past—all of it. And by now he should realize forgiveness wouldn’t happen anytime soon, so Calhoun might just wear out his knees.
“Son, if you don’t think I wanted to do the same to Whitman, then you don’t know me. It’s just that I’ve learned over the years how to hold my temper. I couldn’t have done it without the help of the good Lord.” He patted the Bible he kept on the dashboard of his cruiser.
Jack did not want to hear the religious stuff, but he also didn’t want to offend Calhoun. The man ran a youth group, and it didn’t hurt that he looked a little like Santa Claus with his hefty build and white beard. Everybody in town loved him. He probably couldn’t help the fact that he had a ridiculously sunny and rather unrealistic disposition.
But then again, Calhoun hadn’t seen the things Jack had. Calhoun didn’t have to live with the memories that made their way into Jack’s dreams every night. “You’re not going to ask me to go to church again, are you?”
“Well, that’s a standing offer. Any time you’re ready, the Lord will be there.”
Jack sighed. In some ways, that’s what he was afraid of the most. He had a lot of good to do to make up for what he’d done, and today probably hadn’t helped his accounting in heaven.
Jack pulled into the driveway of his rented home on Twain Harte Drive. The mature elm trees in desperate need of pruning lined the cul-de-sac, and an abundance of cars were parked on the street of Harte’s Peak’s oldest middle class neighborhood. It turned out that the modest cottage was the only place he could find that would accept a month to month lease.
After today’s incident, Calhoun had sent him home early and ordered him to get some rest. Rest. What a joke. He did need a nap, hopefully followed by a good night’s sleep, though he doubted he would get either.
What he definitely didn’t need was what he witnessed as he shut his truck off. A figure, pressed against the front window of his neighbor’s house two doors down, clearly pushing the window open from the outside.
Entering through the front window in broad daylight. Great. Will this day never end?
From the brand name skateboarding shoes and the matching logo t-shirt, the intruder could be a kid, and that was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now. Kids were unpredictable, dangerous. But no way would an intruder get away with a B&E. Not in his neighborhood. The people on this street couldn’t have much, so what was this kid after? Probably a TV set or the latest PlayStation.
He approached the front of his neighbor’s house, hand resting on his weapon just in case the uniform wasn’t enough to send the kid running. He’d let this one go as long as the kid didn’t make it in the house, no harm done. Things were different in Harte’s Peak, not like back home in Virginia. This was a small community and even the kids were normally well behaved. Just his luck to run into a troublemaker.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t even sure who lived in the house or if they were at home, since he’d made it a point not to meet any of his neighbors.
A few words indicating that he lived next door should send the kid running and that would be the end of it. He’d go inside, grab a soda, and stare at the empty walls, maybe watch the game until it was time for his next shift. The work was what he lived for nowadays. It kept him grounded, rooted. As long as he had work, he had a reason to stay alive.
He approached the house with slow, sure steps and watched the kid hang one leg over the windowsill, oblivious to his approach. Not exactly a professional. This might be the kid’s first foray into stealing.
“Can I help you?” he asked the kid in his deepest and loudest tone.
The kid startled, and when she turned her face to him, he realized it was a teenaged girl. She squealed her surprise, lost her balance, and promptly fell inside through the window.
Super. Officially breaking and entering—or more like breaking and falling. He edged to the window, looked down at the display, and assessed that she wasn’t hurt. He didn’t see any bleeding or scratches, but she lay splayed across the floor in a heap, her dark brown hair forming a cloud around her head.
“Are you OK, kid?” He pushed down the panic in his voice. Please. No more kids hurt on my watch.
“I’m fine! And I didn’t do anything wrong.” She pushed hair out of her equally dark brown eyes. Raised her chin, defiant. Nice. So it was his fault he’d caught her in the act.
“Except breaking and entering.” He took a deep breath in and let it out.
“What did you say?” The kid seemed confused. Maybe she had a concussion.
“Get up. I’ll take you to the station, and we can call your parents.” The last thing he wanted to do was be responsible for this kid, but she’d committed a crime right in front of his eyes, and he couldn’t let her go now. Knowing Sheriff Calhoun and his bleeding heart ways, he’d probably just give the girl a stern lecture.
“My parents? Why? Are you nuts?”
“No, but maybe you are. Then again, you probably didn’t realize a cop lives in this neighborhood. You picked the wrong house, kid.” His voice sounded strained in his ears. The breathing exercises weren’t working. Again. He just wanted to get away from here and go back in his house where he could breathe. Why did this kid have to pick his neighborhood?
“I live here, you nerd.” She almost spat the words out, scrambling to her feet.
He was supposed to believe that. “The front door is a better place to come in if you live here. And you can come out the front door now. I’m guessing the owners aren’t home.”
“You don’t believe me. Gee, what a shock.”
“Why should I?” In his experience, best relegated to the deep recesses of his mind, kids rarely told the truth. He used to believe them as much as he believed anyone else, until he’d been burned.
“I can call my mother. She’ll tell you.” Her defiance continued, unabated. This kid was a piece of work.
“You better do that.” He would have to talk to the kid’s mother anyway. Might as well have her come to him, and then they could all three drive to the station. He’d let Calhoun decide what to do with the kid.
The girl reached inside her jeans pocket for a cell phone. He watched as she pushed buttons and sighed with exasperation.
“She never remembers to turn her phone off silent.”
Jack shrugged. He’d bet this kid had a million excuses, and maybe there was no mother coming at all.