Authors: Valerie Hansen
Someone wants Maggie Morgan dead and her wildlife sanctuary destroyed. Someone connected to the generations-old family feud that’s been revived now that her first love, Flint Crawford, has returned to town. And not only is her life in jeopardy, but Flint has discovered the secret she’s kept since he left—their five-year-old son. Assailed by memories of their forbidden love and bowled over by the sight of the son he never knew, Flint has a job to do as the new game warden. But now the stakes are raised. Not only must he protect the woman he once loved, but he also has to save his son...or die trying.
He was a father.
And now he was at the kitchen sink washing his son’s hands, when Maggie shouted, “Flint! Come here.”
He heard the trepidation in her voice. With the child tucked behind him, Flint led the way into the boy’s bedroom, where Maggie paced. “What’s wrong?”
Flint bent to peer at it. “It looks okay.”
She pointed with a shaky finger. “The glass does. The screen is missing.”
“Maybe it just fell out. This is an old house.”
“Yes, it is,” Maggie replied. “And the screens are so warped they’re nailed in.”
“Somebody pulled nails out to get it off?” His heart started pounding so hard it felt as if it might go through his chest. “We should call the sheriff.”
“Not again. I keep calling and pretty soon they won’t make a run out here, let alone in a hurry. I think that’s part of the stalker’s plan.”
“That’s paranoid, Maggie.”
“Only if nobody’s after me.”
Flint nodded. “Us. After us.”
And now they were after their son.
was thirty when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. She now lives in a renovated farmhouse in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and is privileged to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for Love Inspired. Life doesn’t get much better than that!
Books by Valerie Hansen
Love Inspired Suspense
Her Brother’s Keeper
Out of the Depths
Shadow of Turning
Nowhere to Run
Capitol K-9 Unit
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“A good man out of the good treasure
of his heart brings forth good;
an evil man out of the evil treasure
of his heart brings forth evil.”
To my Joe, who will always be looking over my shoulder
as I write. He was an extraordinary gift from God.
didn’t expect this kind of assignment so soon.” Flint Crawford raked his fingers through his wavy golden hair and faced his captain. “I just got here. Can’t you at least give me time to get settled?”
The older Arkansas Game and Fish officer was frowning. “Sorry. No. None of my other wardens have been able to get close to locating this bunch of poachers. Your connection with the Morgan woman is invaluable.”
“She hates me,” Flint argued.
“Doesn’t matter. At least she knows you personally. Use that to our advantage. Get back in her good graces and find out where her uncle Elwood is hiding.” Captain Lang tapped the file folder on his desk. “It’ll look good on your record.”
“Or my résumé,” Flint grumbled. “I have to be honest, sir. I don’t like taking advantage of Maggie.”
“Who says you will be? She must be as against poachers as we are. She couldn’t run that wild animal rehab if she wasn’t.”
“I wish I knew how she got involved with the Dodd Sanctuary. The first I’d heard of it was a few weeks ago.”
“It’s been keeping a low profile,” Lang told him. “I get the idea that’s partly your Maggie’s idea, since she’s running it by herself.”
“And it’s funded how?” Flint’s green eyes narrowed. He didn’t want to think of Maggie involved in anything shady, but a lot of time had passed since he last saw her. People could change.
“Abigail Dodd has more money than sense,” Lang said, “and no children. She wants to leave a legacy, so she set up the sanctuary on the old Dodd Farm and hired Ms. Morgan because she knew her.” He chuckled. “Believe you me, Abigail’s close relatives are not pleased. I hear they tried to get her declared incompetent.”
“Big-time. By the time Maggie got done testifying, there was no way anybody could question the old lady’s sanity.”
“Maggie always did love the underdog and defended against injustices.” Maybe that would make it easier to get her to talk to him. It was his job as a game warden to police the forest and wildlands, making sure no laws were broken and nature was preserved in its natural state. Anybody who was hunting out of season was clearly being unfair, both to other hunters and to the animals.
Sighing in acceptance, he nodded. “Okay. Give me the file on the poaching so I can check for patterns. Is that their only crime?”
Lang handed him a manila folder. “Not by a long shot.”
The colloquial reference to aiming from a distance did not sit well with Flint. Not well at all.
* * *
Wind whipped Maggie Morgan’s long, honey-brown hair across her face as gathering clouds darkened the afternoon. Hurrying, she almost tripped over her enormous dog. “Out of the way, Wolfie. Mama has to finish her chores before the storm gets here.”
If the black-and-brown canine hadn’t bristled and begun to bark, she might not have noticed a familiar pickup truck heading up the long driveway to the sanctuary.
“Oh, hush, dog. You know the game warden. He was here just last week.”
With a friendly wave to her approaching visitor, she went back to hauling armloads of fresh straw bedding. Whatever the guy wanted could wait until she’d tended to her patients’ needs. Helpless animals always came first.
Approaching footsteps crinkled dry leaves behind her while Maggie was bent over spreading loose straw in a lean-to. She glanced through the bottom of the wire fence and saw black boots. “I’m almost done. How come you’re back so soon? Did you bring me another patient?”
The Game and Fish warden cleared his throat. “Hello, Maggie.”
Momentarily stunned, she froze. A shiver tickled her spine. It
be him. Yet she knew it was.
The injured doe in the pen with her sensed her sudden nervousness and bolted, running across the enclosure and careening off the fencing.
“Easy, girl, easy.” Maggie straightened and inched her way to the gate, slipping through and fastening it securely while steeling herself to turn and face her visitor. “Flint Crawford.”
“You remember me.”
How could she forget the man who had broken her heart and nearly ruined her life? She stalled by taking a moment to brush off her jeans and the sleeves of her denim jacket before she said, “Vaguely. What are you doing here?”
He spread his arms to display his dark green uniform and badge on an athletic body. “I work in Fulton County now. See?”
“I thought you were in the marines.”
Flint nodded. “Long story. I missed home. Deep roots, I guess.”
I don’t believe a word of it
. Maggie gritted her teeth rather than chance speaking.
If you had deep roots you’d have stayed here in the first place.
Scattered drops the size of dimes were beginning to dot the dry ground. She extended her hands, palms up. “It’s starting to rain.”
“Can we take cover on the porch?”
“I have nothing to say to you.” The longer he lingered, the angrier Maggie grew. At this point she wasn’t positive she could maintain her facade of calm indifference long enough for him to leave. Being in Flint’s presence again was far more difficult than she’d imagined. Where were all the irate speeches she’d rehearsed for the past six years?
Silent, Maggie accompanied him toward his truck, the big dog at her heels. They began to circle the silver-gray pickup. Wolfie stiffened just as a deafening boom of thunder joined a blinding flash!
Everything blurred as Maggie was smacked hard on the shoulder, knocked off her feet and ended up lying in the dirt with Flint hovering over her. Wolfie was growling as he circled them.
She gave Flint a push. “Get off me!”
Instead, he supported himself on one arm and continued to keep her down. That was when she saw he’d drawn his gun. “No! Don’t shoot my dog!”
“Hush,” Flint ordered, getting to his knees. “Keep your head down.”
“What are you babbling about? We almost got hit by lightning.” The expression on his face argued otherwise. “Didn’t we?”
“No. Thunder doesn’t have a high-pitched echo. Whoever aimed at us expected the storm to mask a rifle shot.”
Maggie tensed, blinking rapidly to try to clear her head. He was right! There had been a singing reverberation amid the rumbling noise of the storm.
She reached out for Wolfie, understanding a moment too late that that was a mistake.
The dog bared his fangs, lunged, and latched on to Flint’s pant leg. Maggie screamed. Flint fell back, rolling farther behind the truck as he fought to break free.
Maggie barely registered the crack and whine of a second shot. A side window of the truck shattered. She screamed again and covered her head as glass rained down. Wolfie released his captive and made a beeline for her.
The game warden recovered enough to sit, pulled out a cell phone and called for assistance before turning to Maggie. “Help is on its way.”
“Are you hurt? Did he bite through the skin?”
“Don’t worry about me. How are you?”
“You don’t look fine.”
“I’m not used to being a target. Now I know how these poor wild animals must feel.”
As Flint slowly reached toward her, she told herself to move away. Her knees felt welded to the ground.
His warm, strong hand cupped her cheek as scattered drops of rain continued to fall. A thumb brushed away blood. It took her a moment to realize it was hers. She jerked back and patted her face.
“You’re not shot,” Flint said. “I think a sliver of glass may have nicked you.”
She sat back on her heels. Flint’s green gaze seemed almost tender. That fit. She’d always viewed him as a caring person, which was why his abandonment had shaken her so badly. Above all, she reasoned, she must keep reminding herself of his desertion.
“We’re about to get soaked,” she said flatly.
“Better wet than dead.” Flint was rubbing his lower leg. “I hope the shooter gave up and left. Thanks to your dog I couldn’t catch a hibernating turtle right now.”
“Serves you right.” A shiver skittered up her spine. “Do you think we’re still in danger? I figure they’re long gone.”
“You’re probably right. They’ve had plenty of time to sneak up on us and finish the job if they wanted to.”
“Oh, that’s comforting.”
“I’m not trying to be comforting,” Flint snapped back. “I’m trying to keep you alive.”
. He was right about that. She patted her pockets. She’d forgotten to bring her cell phone. “How long before we have that help you promised?”
“I don’t know. We’re pretty far out in the country.”
“Then hand me your phone,” Maggie said. “I need to make a call and I left mine inside.” If it had been anyone but Flint, she would have added
She saw him hesitate.
“Okay, but keep it short. This is for official use only.”
“Would you rather I made a run for the house to get my own?”
Grabbing the phone before he changed his mind, she had to think hard to remember the number that was programmed into her own cell phone.
A tentative “Hello” was all the greeting she allowed before blurting, “Mom?”
“Maggie? I almost didn’t answer. This isn’t your number.”
“No. I’m using a borrowed phone.”
“What happened to yours?
“Never mind that. Please, just listen. I need you to pick up Mark from school and keep him at your place until you hear from me. I’ll explain everything later.”
“Please, Mom? This is really important.”
“Okay, honey. But I’ll expect all the details when you come get him. And plan to stay for supper. Bye!”
Sure, assuming I’m able to get rid of my unwelcome visitor by then
. Maggie’s fondest hope was that the shooter was attempting to scare the new game warden just on general principle. Given that this particular warden was Flint Crawford, she owed their anonymous assailant a debt of gratitude for trying.
Too bad it hadn’t worked.
* * *
Police and sheriff’s units arrived just ahead of an ambulance. Dressed for the heavier rain that was predicted, Sheriff Harlan Allgood leaned against the fender of the silver-gray Game and Fish truck and shook his head at Flint. “Sorry about this, son. Want me to help you over onto the porch where the medics are working on Maggie?”
“I won’t be welcome. I can hop in the ambulance if this drizzle gets much worse.”
“Suit yourself.” He chuckled. “I didn’t dream you’d run into trouble so soon. Who’d you manage to rile in a day and a half?”
“Beats me.” Flint pulled the leg of his pants up to his knee. “Everybody’s been pretty friendly so far.” He grimaced. “Except for Maggie and her dog.”
“Wolfie’s always been fine around me,” Harlan said. “What’d you do to set him off?”
“He was probably reacting to my knocking her down to keep her from getting shot.”
“I reckon she gave you what for.”
“Oh, yeah. She actually thought I was going to shoot her dog.” Flint peered into the woods. “Any of your people come up with the real shooter yet?”
“Nope, and I don’t expect ’em to. The ol’ boys around these parts are good at disappearin’.”
“Is this the first trouble Maggie’s had?”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“Yeah, well, she and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms.”
you?” Harlan guffawed. “Folks around here still remember when you turned tail and skedaddled.”
Flint refused to let the old-timer goad him. The details of the past were nobody’s business but his and Maggie’s. And speaking of the past, if he hadn’t heard that both her brothers had left to establish successful careers in neighboring states, he might have blamed one of
“So, what are you going to do?” Flint asked.
“Finding the shooter, to start with. And then protecting Maggie, just in case she’s a target, too.”
“Don’t know what any of us can do,” Harlan replied with a drawl. “I suppose I can have a deputy cruise by a time or two.”
“Well, somebody’d better keep a lookout. We could have been killed.”
Chuckling, the portly older man stepped away to give the medics room to check Flint’s dog bite. “I doubt that. There ain’t many hunters round here who’d miss unless they meant to. You ask me, those shots were a warning.”
Flint grimaced as a paramedic disinfected his shin and slapped a small bandage on it. Harlan was right. Country boys grew up learning to hit what they were aiming at. Whoever was behind this attack had missed on purpose. If Maggie hadn’t been standing next to him at the time of the shooting,
would have been his chief suspect.
As if his thoughts had drawn her, she spoke from behind them. “Do you need to see proof of Wolfie’s vaccinations, Sheriff?”
Harlan shook his head. “Not unless Flint here wants to check ’em.”
“I trust you,” Flint said. “I’m just surprised you let that dog wander loose where he can bite people.”
Maggie huffed. “I don’t suppose you’d believe he’s hardly ever growled at anybody else in the four years since I rescued him.”
“Scout’s honor,” she replied. “He usually barks to tell me someone’s here, but that’s about all.”
Flint swallowed hard. Maybe he should have stayed in Serenity almost six years ago, for Maggie’s sake, but when she’d refused to even consider eloping he’d decided she didn’t truly love him. In retrospect, he’d wondered if she’d simply been defying her parents by dating him in the first place.
As the years had passed, he’d been forced to admit that their teenage romance had been doomed. Perhaps they’d been overly attracted to each other because the relationship was forbidden by both their feuding families. It was certainly a possibility.
And now? Flint studied her closed expression. He and Maggie were very different people. Besides, plenty of gossip had made its way to him since his recent return, and her phone call to her mom had confirmed it. Maggie was a single mother. Clearly, she had moved on and he’d better do the same. Too bad he’d been assigned to renew their acquaintance.