A bland, gray sky blocked all the stars. Chelsea sighed and got into the back seat of her car. Bentley’s tail thumped against the air mattress as she crawled up beside him.
“I miss the stars already, Bent.” Still, she had made the decision to come back East. She had to find Amber Neill and talk. Just talk. Maybe they’d even be able to do that without killing each other.
Sighing, Chelsea snuggled closer to her giant mutt and fought for sleep. A tapping on her window killed what little relaxation she had found. The flashlight in the window mostly blinded her, but she got the badge and gun.
She sat up, hands visible, and unlocked the door. Bentley followed her into the parking lot. “Can I help you, officer?”
A man with more than a bit of a gut and a red nose narrowed his eyes at Bentley. “License and registration.”
Chelsea opened the driver’s side door and dug into her consul. Bentley pressed himself against her legs, clearly making a barrier between her and the cop. She handed over the paperwork and put a hand on the dog’s neck.
The cop studied her license. “Chelsea Childling? Did your dad write comics?”
“No.” She wasn’t in the mood for banter over her name. She had driven for sixteen straight hours and wanted some sleep.
“Says here you’re from Georgia?”
She nodded and deliberately thickened her accent. “Yes, sir. Born a peach, die a peach.”
The cop chuckled. “Did you know there’s a hotel down the road?”
“Yes, sir, but they charge an arm and leg for my dog to sleep in there.”
“Yeah, I bet.” The cop snorted. “You heading back home?”
She shook her head. “Heading out to visit some family up north.” She had no intention of ever going back to Georgia. The memories might be fond and mostly painless these days, but there was nothing for her there anymore.
“Well then, I expect I won’t see you here tomorrow night?”
“No, sir. I just need a few hours’ sleep and then I’m back on the road. Is there a truck stop with showers nearby?”
“’Bout an hour up 90.”
She’d known that already, but her question seemed to ease the cop. He smiled at her and gestured with her paperwork. “I should run this just to be sure.”
“Have at it, officer.”
He chuckled a little as he walked away. Chelsea leaned against her car as she pulled out her cell phone. She had a text message from Jackson Hawk.
<Gonna be in Seattle for a few days. Any contacts there?>
Chelsea’s jaw tightened as she aggressively typed in his number. As soon as he picked up, words ground past her teeth. “Be careful in Seattle. The locals have a real problem knowing which side of the fight they’re on.”
“Sounds like a story, my little nun.” The lightness of the reply soothed something in her.
“It is, and as soon as this cop finishes running my license, I’ll tell it to you.”
“Ooo, in trouble with the law?”
“Nah, got caught sleeping in my car.”
Jackson laughed. “Must be nice, traveling in comfort.”
“It is. Speaking of, where are you sleeping tonight?”
“I found a bed.”
“I bet you did. Does she know yet?”
“That’s not very nice.”
“But it is very accurate.”
He sighed. “Yes, I am very sure my hunting partner and I have the same sleeping arrangements in mind. You mad?”
She shook her head. “No, Jack. We might be working on whatever this is, but we aren’t together yet. I am not expecting you to be celibate while you wait for me.”
Thankfully, the cop opened his door so she could cut off Jackson. “We’ll talk later, cop is coming back. Keep your guard up in Seattle.”
“Will do. Take care. I love you.”
She swallowed. “I will, and I — Take care.” She hung up on his chuckle, eyes on the approaching cop. “Can I get some sleep now, officer?”
He handed over her license. “Everything’s in order. Stay warm. And have a good trip.”
“Thanks.” She waited until he was back in his car to open her own. She crawled in behind Bentley, tossed her paperwork in the front seat, and snuggled back up with her dog. Her eyes had barely closed when her phone buzzed.
She wanted to ignore it, but only a handful of people had her number and all of them were important to her. The name on the screen shocked her, and she scrambled to answer, “Florence?”
The owner of the Blind Bronco sobbed on the other end. “Chelsea, you need to come home. My grandpa… he passed. His funeral is in two days.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m in Illinois. I can be in by tomorrow.”
Florence sobbed. “I’ll keep the bunk open for you. Spread the word, please.”
“I will.” Tears spilled on her cheeks. “See you soon.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” As the phone went dead, Chelsea buried her face in Bentley’s soft fur. The dog whined and shifted until he could lick her ear.
Memories of South Dakota washed over her. She had stayed out there for months, using Florence’s haunt as her home base. She had found Bentley out there and herself. Wiping at her eyes, she rolled over and pulled up Keegan’s number. Her old hunting partner was a time zone away. It would be late for him, but not too late. She dialed his number.
He picked up on the first ring. “You heard about Beau Chang.” It was not a question.
“And you can’t make it.” She hated the resentment in her voice.
“I have a kid now. I can’t just up and take off.”
“I’ll pay your respects. Just spread the word, please.”
She fought to throttle her anger. “Look, I understand. You’re retired. I just wanted to make sure you knew.”
He sighed. “You’re mad.”
“Damn right, I am. Beau Chang was…”
“He was good to us. I know. But I can’t just take off.”
She wanted to scream that he could. She had arranged for quite a bit of money for his daughter’s care. Instead, she wiped at her tears. “It’s fine.”
“Have you ever been to a hunter’s funeral before?”
“Yeah, at Ocean Shores.”
“Okay then, I’ll assume you’ll behave yourself.”
“This is why I hate you.”
He laughed, soft and sad. “I know.”
“Try to sleep.”
She hung up her phone and closed her eyes. Despite her exhaustion, sleep was a long time coming. She awoke at first light and headed back to big sky country and the stars.
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