Ledger McGraw may know all about horses, but he doesn’t know anything about the lie that broke up his first romance with waitress Abby Pierce. Abby, tricked into marrying the wrong man, is at the end of her tether in her abusive relationship. When she learns the truth about her terrible marriage, she becomes desperate to escape it—before her jealous husband kills her.
Though Ledger’s heart was wounded by Abby, he’ll still do anything to protect her and free her from her violent spouse. He’s determined to win her back and reignite their passion…
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By B.J. Daniels
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Barbara Heinlein
All rights reserved.
Abby Pierce opened her eyes and quickly closed them against the bright sunlight. She hurt all over. As she tried to sit up, a hand gently pushed on her shoulder to keep her flat on the bed.
"Don't sit up too fast," her husband said. "You're okay. You're in the hospital. You took a nasty fall."
Fall? Hospital? Her mouth felt dry as dust. She licked her lips. "Can you close the drapes?" "Sure," Wade said and hurried over to the window.
She listened as he drew the drapes together and felt the room darken before she opened her eyes all the way.
The first thing she saw was her husband silhouetted against the curtains. He was a big imposing man with a boyish face and a blond crew cut. He was wearing his sheriff's deputy uniform, she noted as he moved back to the bed to take her hand.
She'd known Wade for years. She'd married him three years ago. That was why when she saw the sheepish look in his brown eyes, she knew at once that he was hiding something.
Abby frowned. "What was I doing that I fell?"
"You don't remember?" He cleared his throat, shifting on his feet. "You asked me to bring up some canning jars from the garage? I'm so sorry I didn't. If I had you wouldn't have been on that ladder ..." He looked at her as if expecting ... Expecting what?
"Canning jars?" she repeated and touched her bandaged temple. "I hit my head?"
He nodded, and taking her hand, he squeezed it a little too hard. "I'm so sorry, Abby." He sounded close to tears.
"It's not your fault," she said automatically, but couldn't help but wonder if there was more to the story. There often was with Wade and his family. She frowned, trying to understand why she would have wanted canning jars and saying as much.
"You said something about putting up peach jam."
"Really? I wonder where I planned to get peaches this time of year."
He said nothing, avoiding her gaze. All the other times she'd seen him like this it had been after he'd hurt her. It had started a year into their marriage and begun with angry accusations that led to him grabbing her, shaking her, pushing her and even slapping her.
Each time he'd stopped before it had gone too far. Each time he'd been horrified by what he'd done. He'd cried in her arms, begging her to forgive him, telling her that he couldn't live without her, saying he would kill himself if she ever left him. And then promising he'd never do it again.
She touched her bandaged head with her free hand. The movement brought a groan out of her as she realized her ribs were either bruised or maybe even broken. Looking down, she saw the bruises on her wrists and knew he was lying. Had he pushed her this time?
"Why can't I remember what happened?" she asked.
"You can't remember anything?" He sounded hopeful, fueling her worst fears that one of these days he would go too far and kill her. Wasn't that what her former boyfriend kept telling her? She pushed the thought of Ledger McGraw away as she often had to do. He didn't understand that she'd promised to love, honor and obey when she'd married Wade — even through the rough spots. And this she feared was one of them.
At the sound of someone entering the room, they both turned to see the doctor come in.
"How are we doing?" he asked as he moved to the foot of her bed to look at her chart. He glanced at Wade, then quickly looked away. Wade let go of her hand and moved to the window to part the drapes and peer out.
Abby closed her eyes at the shaft of sunlight he let in. "My head hurts," she told the doctor.
"I would imagine it does. When your husband brought you in, you were in and out of consciousness."
Wade had brought her in? He didn't call an ambulance?
"Also I can't seem to remember what happened," she added and, out of the corner of her eye, saw her husband glance back at her.
The doctor nodded. "Very common in your type of head injury."
"Will she get her memory back?" Wade asked from the window, sounding worried that she would.
"Possibly. Often not. I'm going to prescribe something for your headache. Your ribs are badly bruised and you have some other abrasions. I'd like to keep you overnight."
"Is that really necessary?" Wade asked, letting the drapes drop back into place.
"With a concussion, it's best," the doctor said
without looking at him. "Don't worry. We'll take good care of her."
"We can talk about it," Wade said. "But I think she'd be more comfortable in her own home. Isn't that right, Abby?"
"On this, I think I know best," the doctor interrupted.
But she could see that Wade was worried. He apparently wanted to get her out of here and quickly. What was he worried about? That she would remember what happened?
If only she could. Unfortunately, the harder she tried, the more she couldn't. The past twenty-four hours were blank, leaving her with the terrifying feeling that her life depended on her remembering.CHAPTER 2
When the phone rang at the Sundown Stallion Station late that afternoon, Ledger McGraw took the call since both his brothers were gone from the ranch and his father was resting upstairs. They had been forced to get an unlisted number after all the media coverage. After twenty-five years, there'd finally been a break in the McGraw twins kidnapping case.
"I need to talk to Travers," Jim Waters said without preamble. "Tell him it is of utmost importance."
Ledger groaned inwardly since he knew his father had almost fired the family attorney recently. "He's resting." Travers McGraw, sixty, had suffered a heart attack a few months ago. He hadn't been well before that. At the time, they hadn't known what was making him so sick. His family had assumed it was the stress of losing his two youngest children to kidnappers twenty-five years before and his de termination to find them. His father was convinced that they were still alive.
"Do you really think I would be calling if it wasn't urgent?" Waters demanded. The fiftysomething attorney had been like one of the family almost from the beginning — until a few months ago, when he and Travers had gotten into a disagreement.
"Jim, if this is about legal business —"
The attorney swore. "It's about the kidnapping. You might recall that we originally used my number to screen the calls about the twins. Well, I am apparently still on the list. I was contacted." He paused, no doubt for effect. "I have reason to believe that Oakley has been found."
"Found?" Ledger asked, his heart in his throat. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the crime had come and gone, but after their father had hired a true-crime writer to investigate and write a book about it, new evidence had turned up.
That new evidence had led them all to believe that his father's gut instinct was right. The twins were alive — and probably adopted out to good families, though illegally. The McGraw twins had been just six months old when they were stolen from their cribs. The ransom money had never been spent and had only recently turned up — with the body of one of the kidnappers. That left whoever had helped him take the babies still at large.
Ledger was thankful that he'd been the one to answer the phone. His father didn't need this kind of aggravation. "All those calls are now being vetted by the sheriff's department. I suggest you have this person contact Sheriff McCall Crawford. If she thinks —" "He has the stuffed toy horse," Waters interrupted. "I've seen it. It's Oakley's."
Ledger felt a shock wave move through him. The stuffed toy horse was a critical piece of information that hadn't originally been released to the public. Was it possible his little brother really had turned up? "Are you sure? There must have been thousands of those produced."
"Not with a certain ribbon tied around its neck." The information about the missing stuffed animal was recently released to the press — sans anything about the ribbon and other things about this specific toy. "Oakley's stuffed horse had a black saddle and a small tear where the stitching had been missed when it was made, right?"
He nodded to himself before saying, "You say you've seen it?" It was that small detail that no one would know unless they had Oakley's horse, which had been taken out of his crib along with him that night twenty-five years ago. "Have you met him?" "I have. He sent me a photo of the stuffed horse. When I recognized it, I drove down to talk to him. Ledger, he swears he's had the stuffed horse since he was a baby."
Letting out a breath, he dropped into a nearby chair. A few months ago they'd learned that the babies might have been left with a member of the Whitehorse Sewing Circle, a group of older women quilters who placed unwanted babies with families desperate for a child. The quilting group had been operating illegally for decades.
Not that the twins had been unwanted. But the kidnapper had been led to believe that was the case. The hope had been that the babies had been well taken care of and that they were still alive, the theory being that they had no idea they'd been kidnapped. His father had made the decision to release more information about what had been taken along with the babies in the hopes that the twins would see it and come forward.
And now it had happened.
"What's his name?" Ledger asked as he gave himself a few minutes to take this all in and decide what to do. He didn't want to bother his father with this unless he was sure it wasn't a hoax.
"He goes by Vance Elliot. He's in Whitehorse. He wants to see your father."
"Abby doesn't remember Anything," Wade said as he walked past his father straight into the kitchen to pull a can of beer out of the refrigerator.
He popped the top, took a long swig and turned to find his father standing in the kitchen doorway frowning at him.
"I'll pay you back," he said, thinking the look was because he was drinking his old man's beer.
"What do you mean she doesn't remember anything?"
"I was skeptical at first, too," he said, drawing out a chair and spinning it around so he could straddle it backward at the table. "But when I told her she fell off a ladder in the garage, she bought it. She couldn't remember why she would have been on a ladder in the garage. I told her she was going to get jars to put up some peach jam."
Huck Pierce wagged his head. "Where in the hell would she get peaches this time of year?"
"How should I know? It doesn't matter. She's not putting up any jam. Nor is she saying a word about anything."
"You are one lucky son of a gun, then," Huck said.
"Don't I know it? So everything is cool, right?"
"Seems so. But I want you to stay by your wife's side. Keep everything as normal as possible. Stick to your story. If she starts to remember ..." He shrugged. "We'll deal with it if we have to."
Wade downed the rest of his beer, needing it even though he was technically on duty at the sheriff's department. He didn't want his father to see how relieved he was. Or how worried about what would happen if Abby remembered what had really happened to her.
"Great, so I get to hang out at the hospital until my shift starts. That place gives me the creeps."
"You're the one who screwed everything up. You knew what was at stake," his father said angrily.
"Exactly." Wade knew he couldn't win in an argument with his father, but that didn't stop him. "So what was I supposed to do when she confronted me? I tried to reason with her, but you know how she is. She was threatening to call the sheriff. Or go running to her old boyfriend Ledger McGraw. I didn't have a choice but to try to stop her."
"What you're saying is that you can't handle your wife. At least you don't have some snot-nosed mouthy kid like I did."
"Yeah, thanks," he said, crushing the beer can in his hand. "I've heard all about how hard it was raising me." He reached in the refrigerator for another beer, knowing he shouldn't, but needing the buzz badly.
Before he could pull one out, his father slammed the refrigerator door, almost crushing his hand. "Get some gum. You can't have beer on your breath when you go back to the hospital, let alone come to work later. Remember, you're the worried husband, you damned fool."
Ledger had just hung up with the attorney when he got the call from his friend who worked at the hospital.
"I shouldn't be calling you, but thought you'd want to know," she said, keeping her voice down. "Abby was brought in."
"That son of a —"
"He swears she fell off a ladder."
"Sure she did. I'll be right there. Is Wade —"
"He just left to go work his shift at the sheriff's department. The doctor is keeping Abby overnight."
"Is she okay?"
"She's pretty beat up, but she's going to be fine."
He breathed a sigh of relief as he hung up. When it rained it poured, he thought as he saw his father coming down the stairs toward him. Travers McGraw was still weak from his heart attack, but it was the systematic poisoning that had really almost killed him. Fortunately, his would-be killer was now behind bars awaiting trial.
But realizing that his second wife was trying to kill him had taken a toll on his father. It was bad enough that his first wife, Ledger's mother, was in a mental hospital. After the twins were kidnapped, Marianne McGraw had a complete breakdown. For twenty-five years, it was believed that she and the ranch's horse trainer, Nate Corwin, had been behind the kidnapping. Only recently had Nate's name been cleared.
"I heard the phone," Travers said now. He'd recovered, but was still weak. He'd lost too much weight. It would be a while until he was his old self. If ever.
That was why Ledger wasn't sure how his father would take the news Waters had called with earlier — especially if it led to yet another disappointment. And yet Ledger couldn't keep the attorney's call from him. If there was even the slightest chance that this Vance Elliot was Oakley ...
"You should sit down."
His father didn't argue as he moved to a chair and sat. He seemed to brace himself. "What's happened?" "Jim Waters called."
Travers began to shake his head. "Now what?"
"He's still apparently the contact person for the family on some of the old publicity," Ledger said.
His father knew at once. "Oakley or Jesse Rose?"
"Oakley. Jim says the young man has the stuffed horse that was taken along with Oakley from his crib the night of the kidnapping. He says he's seen the toy and that it is definitely Oakley's."
His father's eyes filled to overflowing. "Thank God. I knew they were alive. I've ... felt it all these years."
"Dad, this Vance Elliot might not be Oakley. We have to keep that in mind."
"He has Oakley's stuffed horse."
"But we don't know how he got it or if it was with Oakley when he was given to the woman at the Whitehorse Sewing Circle," Ledger reminded him.
"When can I see him?" his father asked, getting to his feet.
"He's in town. Waters wants to bring him over this evening. I said it would be fine. I hope that was all right. If it goes well, I thought you might want him to stay for dinner. I can tell the cook." Their cook for as far back as Ledger could remember had recently been killed. They'd been through several cooks since then. He couldn't remember the name of the latest one right now and felt bad about it. "Let's just keep our fingers crossed that it really is Oakley."
His father smiled and stepped closer to him to place a hand on his shoulder. "I am so blessed to have such good sons. Speaking of sons, where are Cull and Boone?"
"Cull and Nikki are checking into some of the adoptions through the Whitehorse Sewing Circle." Nikki St. James was the crime writer who'd helped unlock some of the kidnapping mystery — and stolen Cull's heart.
"I doubt the twins' adoptions were recorded anywhere, and with the Cavanaugh woman dying not long after the twins were kidnapped ... You haven't heard anything yet?"
Ledger shook his head. "They said that clues to what happened to some of the babies were found stitched on their baby blankets. But the twins wouldn't have quilted blankets made for them because of the circumstances." Pearl Cavanaugh had been led to believe that the twins were in danger, so she would have made very private adoptions for Oakley and Jesse Rose.
"He went to check on that horse you were interested in, remember?"
Excerpted from Dead Ringer by B.J. Daniels. Copyright © 2017 Barbara Heinlein. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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