THE car coughed and sputtered like the angry hiss of a kettle left too long on the stove. Neave Sinclair cranked the steering wheel to the right, coaxed the vehicle closer to the shoulder of the road, out of the path of oncoming traffic. Even though she hadn’t seen another motorist in over an hour, she didn’t want to risk getting into an accident.
She considered looking under the hood, but she knew as much about cars as she did about quantum physics. She couldn’t even change a flat tire without calling for help.
One final cough that sounded more like a loud belch, and everything went dead, including the radio, which hadn’t worked all that well to begin with.
The silence was deafening.
Neave leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes, fighting the urge to either scream in frustration or cry in self-pity. She did neither. A few stray tears pressed against her eyes, wanting release, but she dashed them away before they could fall. Giving into her emotions now would serve no purpose, not when she needed to keep a clear head.
What she needed right now was a place to lay low for a while, until she could devise a plan of action. There was no better place she could think of than Boulder, where her friend Deanie would welcome her, no questions asked. But Boulder was a good sixteen-hour drive from here and may as well have been on another planet for all the good it would do her.
Having the car fixed wasn’t an option. She’d driven this same route last summer to attend a writer’s conference in San Diego. The closest town from here was at least a forty-five-minute drive. To have the car towed that distance would cost a small fortune. Then the price for the repairs themselves could run in the hundreds. Providing the car could even be fixed, that is. Her funds were limited, and with no way to know how long it would take to clear her name, she couldn’t take the chance.
“Damn it all, anyway!”
Nothing had gone right since that day her whole world had fallen apart. The car breaking down now was the final straw. She still had trouble making sense of it all, even though nearly two weeks had passed. The sirens, the police pounding on her door, the interrogation that had seemed endless. And then finally, having her rights read to her as she was hauled off to jail. She, who not once in all her thirty-five years had stolen even so much as a pack of chewing gum, was now being charged with bank fraud and embezzlement.
Neave shifted in the seat and looked out the window at the storm clouds amassing in the dark, brooding sky.
One day she was an average person, a simple romance novelist struggling to make an honest living; the next, a wanted felon. How did something like that happen? And why? The public defender, a smooth-faced kid fresh out of law school, explained that her fingerprints, as well as a credit card receipt in her name, had been found at the scene of the crime.
She had no idea how her things had ended up carted off as evidence. The only thing that made any sense was that she was being framed. Even that didn’t really make complete sense, for who would want to frame her, of all people?
She didn’t know, but she was damn well going to find out. How she was going to go about it, she hadn’t quite figured out yet.
Thankfully, based on her good standing in the community and with no prior criminal history, the judge had granted her release on her own recognizance. She shuddered to think of the night she’d spent in the county jail while awaiting her preliminary hearing. The near deafening noise of other inmates yelling and swearing. The stench of vomit and unwashed bodies. The fear of closing her eyes lest she be stabbed to death in her sleep. She would never have survived another night in that hellhole.
Neave glanced repeatedly over her shoulder, half-expecting to see every local and state official hard on her heels. She was surprised, and not a little relieved, to find they weren’t. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed. Her stomach clenched and goose bumps broke out on her arms.
She didn’t know how long she had before the authorities discovered she’d skipped town. She didn’t even know for certain if they would come after her. It was more a gut feeling than anything. That and the fact that as a condition of her release, she’d sworn not to leave McKinleyville. Now here she was, a scant two days after her stint in the slammer, high-tailing it out of town like the criminal they purported her to be. Despite her resolve not to cry, a lone tear slipped past her guard and rolled down her cheek. She felt so alone, more alone than she’d ever felt before. She fingered the silver heart-shaped locket hanging from a chain around her neck that her son, Jesse, had given to her for Mother’s Day two years ago.
She pounded her fist on the steering wheel. The pain helped bring her back into focus. She realized she’d been sitting for fifteen minutes doing nothing when she should be concentrating on how she was going to get to Boulder now that the car was toast.
First of all, she needed to clear her head and stretch her legs. She’d been driving for hours without a break and her muscles were beginning to cramp. She grabbed her jacket from the back seat, slipped it on and climbed out of the car.
A stiff northerly wind blew down from the treetops. She shivered and drew the edges of her jacket tighter around her chin. The lonely call of a gull sounded from high above.
A battered blue Chevy van crested the rise, heading straight toward her. As it sped by, a geyser of dirty water spewed from all four tires. She lunged to one side to avoid the filthy waterfall, and twisted her foot while trying to maintain her balance.
Neave cried out as she fell to her knees. She climbed to her feet, dusted off her jeans then hoisted herself onto the hood of the car. The near-miss, by no means momentous, released something inside her and the dam of emotions she’d been holding at bay for the last two weeks burst.
Her shoulders shook as great heaving sobs tore from her chest. Tears clogged her eyes so that she could barely see her hands clenched in her lap. Her throat constricted and she could hardly breathe. She wondered if a person could die of loneliness and anguish. If there was a hell, she was living it.
After a time, her breathing became less labored, the shakes subsided and her reasoning slowly returned. She’d go back. Turn herself in. She was a fool to think she could handle something like this all on her own. She was a fiction writer, not a true crime detective. She started to rise, but the thought of what she’d be returning to had her sitting down again. She couldn’t go back now. Back to a life of imprisonment, her freedom torn from her like pages from a book, never knowing who was responsible for destroying her life.
She couldn’t do that to herself, or to Jesse. When he returned from work and found her gone, he’d worry about her safety of course, but at least he’d know the choice had been hers to make. If she went back now, she’d be relinquishing control of her life, and Jesse wouldn’t want that for her.
Neave rubbed her tired, gritty eyes and looked up at the darkening sky. Night was fast approaching and she still had a good distance to go before reaching the next town. From there she would decide what her next step should be. Walking would slow her down considerably, but at the moment she had no other options.
She grabbed her backpack from the car and started to head out when a car engine revved in the distance. She squinted, but the image shimmered and she couldn’t quite make it out. The feeling of being followed that had come over her earlier intensified. Prickles of fear raced down her spine. She considered hiding in the stand of trees behind her, then rejected the idea. The car would be on her before she could make it halfway there.
The vehicle came into view and she could make out a black pickup truck hauling a horse trailer. When the truck came within a hundred yards of her, it slowed enough so she could see the outline of a man at the wheel, a big black dog at his side. She broke out in a cold sweat when she realized he intended to stop. He slowed to a crawl, glanced out the passenger window at her, but kept on going. Less than two car lengths later, the truck stopped then reversed direction.
Neave remained rooted to the spot as the man climbed down from the pickup and walked toward her, favoring his right leg. The dog stuck its head out the partially opened window, eyes fixed on its master. She swallowed over the sudden dryness in her throat. Her heart raced and she had to take a couple of deep breaths to still her rising panic.
The man stopped in front of her, close enough to touch. So close she could see a small scar on his chin. But it was his eyes that caught her attention. Moss green. Empty. She’d never seen eyes so devoid of emotion.
Although he was of average height, his air of strength made him seem formidable. Which made her reaction to him all the more confusing. One minute she was practically cowering in fear, the next she was as calm as the ocean on a clear, sunny day. It was plain crazy, and scared her because, in all her life, she’d never had another adult she could depend on other than herself.
He gave her a quick once-over, jerked his head toward the car sitting by the wayside. “Everything all right here?”
The gentleness in his deep voice surprised her. It was at such odds with his appearance. “Uh, yes, thanks. Just taking a rest.”
He glanced at her backpack, then looked over at the car again. “Got car trouble, or do you like to live dangerously?”
“Pardon?” Neave barely paid attention to what he said. All she could think was that he couldn’t be the law. Otherwise, he would have slapped a pair of handcuffs on her and hauled her off to the nearest lockup by now. He could, however, be another Hannibal Lecter, sizing her up for an afternoon snack.
He folded his arms over his denim jacket. “Not the safest way for a lone woman to travel.”
“My chauffeur took the day off.”
His eyes narrowed. It wouldn’t be the first time her mouth had landed her in trouble.
“Where are you headed?”
Neave hugged her backpack to her chest. She considered lying, but she had the feeling he wasn’t in the market to buy a truckload of bull. “Boulder.” She expected him to ask what she was doing out here all alone in the middle of nowhere. But he didn’t ask and she didn’t volunteer an explanation.
A pregnant pause stretched into forever as he appeared to mull over his options. He obviously wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of offering her a lift. His jaw clenched and a muscle twitched in his cheek. What could have been annoyance flickered in his eyes. Finally, after an eternity in which she considered that helping her out was about as high on his list of priorities as shoveling manure, he looked at her and sighed.
“I’ll give you a lift into the next town. You can call for a tow from there.” He started toward the truck, stopped and looked back at her over his shoulder. “If you’d rather ride than walk, that is.”
She would. But Neave didn’t like coincidences. It seemed a little too convenient for him to show up out of the blue right when she needed a ride. Something about him didn’t ring true. Probably a mild case of overactive imagination, she chided herself. Given the circumstances and everything she’d been through recently, she figured she’d earned the right to be a tad paranoid.
It didn’t help that she’d barely slept in days. She was so tired that the thought of the long walk to the next town only served to heighten her exhaustion. Neave shouldered her backpack and hurried to catch up to the man. At least the pain in her ankle had subsided somewhat. As for her chances, she’d have to hope she hadn’t made a mistake trusting in a complete stranger.
By the time she reached the truck, he was seated inside with the engine running. He’d removed his jacket and was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Neave pulled the passenger door open and hauled herself up onto the seat. She turned to thank him for stopping to assist her, only to be brought up short by a very sharp, very dangerous-looking set of fangs. If she’d had more experience with man’s best friend, she might have found it odd that the dog had two different-colored eyes. One brown, one blue.
Neave placed her backpack on the floor at her feet, took off her jacket and laid it on top. The dog sat between her and its master, his every nuance warning her to keep her distance. Neave was only too happy to comply.
“Quiet, Raine.” The man shifted the truck into gear and pulled out onto the highway.
“Raine?” She glanced at the dog from the corner of her eye.
“Yeah. It was raining cats and dogs when I found him a couple years back.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Good thing you didn’t find him in a pile of cow dung.”
He ignored her comment and kept his eyes glued to the road ahead. The dog lost interest in her and curled up on the seat, nose tucked under its tail. Neave tried to concentrate on the passing scenery, but the silence made her edgy. She shifted on the seat to get a better view of her would-be rescuer. And she was reserving judgment on that one.
The sleeves of his white cotton shirt were rolled up to reveal tanned, muscular forearms sprinkled with a light dusting of hair. She wondered if he ever laughed. The tiny lines furrowing out from his eyes were undoubtedly not laugh lines. His nose was straight, the eyebrows thick and finely arched. His sandy-colored hair bore a hint of gray at the temples. A bit on the long side, it curled over the edge of his collar.
His lips were full, and at the moment, curled into the slightest imitation of a smile. “See anything you like?”
She pretended to count the studs on the dog’s collar. “So, you got a name, or should I just call you assho—”
“Jordan,” he interrupted. “Jordan Chandler. So, you got a name?”
“Neave Sinclair.” She realized her mistake the instant the words left her mouth. But it was too late to call them back. If Jordan recognized her name, he showed no outward sign of it.
“Mighty fancy name,” was all he said, in a tone that implied he couldn’t care less.
She sighed in relief. “Yeah, I thought so too.” Maybe it did sound a bit pretentious, but at least it was better than the “Jane Smith” she’d been assigned at birth.
His brows drew together and he glanced askance at her. He opened his mouth to speak, apparently thought better of it, returned his attention to the road ahead, and silence descended again like a thick, dark shroud.
The dog yawned. His nose twitched. Then his ears. He stretched out his right foreleg and laid it on her lap, wriggled around on the seat until his head was resting on his paw.
“Nice doggy.” Neave went to pet him on the head. The dog bared his teeth and she yanked her hand back.
Jordan grabbed the dog by the collar and pulled him off her. “Funny, Raine usually takes to new people. Can’t imagine why he doesn’t like you.”
Neave could. But she wasn’t about to say so. Somehow she didn’t think Jordan Chandler would be too impressed with her comparing him to his dog. Besides, her mouth had already landed her in enough trouble for one day. So she clamped her lips shut and vowed not to utter another word unless he did. But that was a mistake. As soon as she quit talking, her mind turned inward and started thinking things she’d rather not think.
She started to reach for the locket around her neck, then let her hand fall to her lap. The last thing she needed was to provoke Jordan’s curiosity. Sorrow pierced her heart. Jesse or his wife, Kylie, would have found her letter by now. The letter that deeded over the house, all her personal belongings, and the contents of her bank accounts that hadn’t been frozen, minus the small sum she kept out for herself.
Would she ever be free to return home? Or would she live out the rest of her days running from place to place, always looking over her shoulder? She couldn’t bear that she might never get to see her unborn grandchild. To hold him, to love him the way she’d loved Jesse from the very first moment she felt the life quickening inside her.
Neave forced herself to think of something else. The road her thoughts wanted to take was too painful to travel. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and searched for something to redirect her thoughts. Jordan looked at her strangely, but didn’t say anything.
She angled her thumb toward the back of the cab. “I see you’re pulling a horse trailer. Are you a rancher? What kind of horses do you keep?”
“I’m a cattle rancher.”
“Oh. Is that what you have in the trailer? A cow?” She knew she was babbling, but she had to keep him talking.
Jordan sighed, as if resigned to a long and unwelcome conversation. “It was. I just unloaded an Angus bull to a client.”
“And you’re on your way home now?” she asked, ignoring his frown of displeasure.
He didn’t answer and she didn’t know what else to say without sounding like a complete idiot.
Jordan massaged his knee. A muscle twitched in his right cheek. She wondered what happened to him. Could a bull, the very same bull he’d delivered to a client, have gored him? Or had he fallen off his trusty steed and broken his kneecap?
The intricacies of the human mind fascinated her. She liked to watch people and try to figure out what made them tick. Jordan Chandler was no exception. And more compelling, enigmatic than most. Was he married? He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but that didn’t necessarily prove anything. Somehow, though, she couldn’t imagine him having a wife. He was too crotchety by far.
Never mind that he put her in mind of the original Marlboro man, all rugged good looks, muscle, and sinew. Neave considered herself immune to drop-dead gorgeous cowboys. Sarcasm just wasn’t high on her list of preferences in a man. Not that she was the least bit interested in Jordan. She had more than enough problems to last her throughout this lifetime and well into the next.
The pickup hit a pothole. She toppled over sideways and came nose-to-nose with the dog. Raine opened one eye and growled at her. She straightened and glanced at Jordan. The corners of his mouth turned up in a half smile that never quite reached his eyes.
Her imagination went into overdrive and she blurted out the first thing that rolled off her tongue. “So, is there a Mrs. Jordan Chandler?”
Big mistake. The look he gave her was so cold it froze her in place. “My personal life is none of your damn business.” His jaw clenched tight, the muscles in his neck corded. The blue vein pulsed in time with her heartbeat.
Neave turned to look out the passenger window. She wished she could take back her thoughtless question, but the damage had already been done. The best thing she could do now was keep her mouth shut and try to salvage what was left of her self-respect.
* * * *
Jordan clenched his hands around the steering wheel. He couldn’t decide who he was angrier with—her for sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong, or himself for not anticipating it. It was a testimony to his sorry state of mind that she’d caught him unawares. For the past hour, he’d been praying she’d shut up before he did something he’d later regret. Like leaving her off in the middle of nowhere to fend for herself.
Now, her silence grated on his nerves more than her incessant chatter had. Why the hell had he stopped in the first place? To make matters worse, he’d had to go and do the honorable thing and offer her a ride. Damn! He had enough problems of his own without adding hers to the growing heap. It didn’t take a genius to figure out she was running from some kind of trouble. Hell, even if he wasn’t good at reading people, the haunted look in her eyes would have given her away.
He spotted a sign for a truck stop and eased the pickup onto the off ramp. What he needed was a good, strong jolt of caffeine and someone to unload his reluctant passenger on. At the very least, someone should be able to direct him to the nearest service center so she could arrange to have her car towed.
Neave glanced at the truck stop, at the half-dozen or so rigs lined up out front. “Why are we stopping?”
“Because I’ve been driving nonstop for four hours and I need to stretch my legs. And I’m hungry.” He pulled to a stop alongside the diner and shut off the ignition. He rubbed the stiffness from his knee, wincing at the tenderness that would plague him for the remainder of his days.
Neave looked at his leg, then back up at him. For once she didn’t say anything, and he had no intention of enlightening her.
“I guess I could use a bite to eat myself,” she said with a nervous glance out the side window. She checked her watch, quickly turned away. “It’s almost five o’clock. I didn’t realize it was that late.”
Why would the time have her so disconcerted? Unless it had something to do with what she was running from? Or to? Whatever. It was her problem, not his.
Raine sat up on the seat and yawned. His tongue lolled from his mouth and his nostrils quivered as he raised his muzzle and sniffed the air. Neave shrank back until she was virtually hugging the doorframe.
Jordan scratched the dog between the ears. “Stay here, boy. I’ll bring you back a nice, juicy burger if you’re good.”
The dog licked his chops. Jordan shrugged into his jacket, opened the door and stepped out into a blast of frigid air. Dark, brooding clouds amassed overhead. The cold, crisp air held a faint trace of sulfur. He recognized the signs of the coming storm and swore under his breath. So much for making good headway.
“Do you think it’s going to snow?” Neave asked with a worried glance at the leaden sky.
“Yeah, there’s a big one headed our way.” He held open the door to the restaurant and waited for her to precede him.
She pushed the hair out of her eyes and looked up at him in alarm. “Big one?”
“Blizzard.” He squinted against the glare of the florescent lights. The restaurant was crowded. Over the clatter of silverware and voices raised in animation rose the scents of fried onions and bacon grease.
“How can you tell it’s a blizzard?”
“You spend a lot of time outdoors, you get to learn the signs.”
“Oh.” Neave slid into an unoccupied booth closest to the door. Without warning, her eyes grew vacant, her mouth slack. Jordan figured she’d taken a side trip to Mars and would return to Earth as soon as she remembered where she’d parked her spaceship.
He sat down opposite her, took off his jacket and picked up a menu from the clear plastic holder. Neave looked up at him then and smiled. The sudden about-face unnerved him. What the hell? One minute she’s acting like a candidate for the nut house, the next she’s all warm and cuddly. Could that be what she was running from? A straitjacket? Somehow he didn’t think so. Whatever it was, it was a hell of a lot stranger than that.
Despite the relative warmth of the restaurant, she kept her jacket zipped to her chin. When the server came to take their order, she turned her face away and pretended to take an interest in the tacky paintings on the wall.
“Would you like anything to drink?” the server asked, holding a coffeepot aloft.
“Coffee’s fine,” Jordan said.
“Yes, coffee. Please,” Neave said, her eyes now trained on the gathering storm outside.
“Do you know if there’s a garage nearby?” he asked the woman while she scribbled their orders down on a notepad.
“Yep. Sam’s place is about twenty miles down the highway.” She pointed in the general direction of who knew where. “But he won’t be there now.”
“Why is that?” he asked, certain he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Storm’s coming. Sam has the only snowplow around for miles. He’ll be getting it ready for when the storm passes.”
Neave watched the server walk away with what he could have sworn was relief. She sighed, slid a glance his way. He was more baffled than ever. Why would she be relieved at not being able to retrieve her car? Unless, it wasn’t hers.
Which led him to wonder why she’d turned away from the waitress, almost as if she was afraid of being recognized. Her gamine grin and studied nonchalance didn’t fool him for a minute. Not that it was any of his business. She could be a cat burglar for all he cared. As long as she kept her nose out of his affairs.
“How much farther do you think we’ll get today?” she asked, like his driving her to Boulder was a done deal. She plucked a napkin from the dispenser and wiped her hands.
Oh, he was tempted to ditch her here, all right. But he couldn’t in all good conscience leave her to fend for herself. “About as far as the nearest motel,” he said and watched her eyes go round as saucers. “The storm should hit within the next couple of hours.”
“Oh, right.” Neave sighed, her cheeks blossoming with color.
Jordan sipped his coffee and studied her over the rim of the cup. She was the most contrary woman he’d ever met. One minute she acted like a space cadet, the next she was as cool as the bottomless blue depths of her eyes. Those same eyes, wide and haunted, stirred something in him he’d thought long dead.
Although Neave looked and acted the part of a fifteen-year-old, she had that world-weary air that suggested life had not been kind to her. Even with the dirt smudge on her cheek, she reminded him of Demi Moore in the movie Ghost, with her short-cropped black hair and slim build—the vulnerability she tried to hide with her bravado and sharp tongue.
“See anything you like?” She picked up her coffee cup and for a minute, he thought she was going to throw the contents in his face.
He grinned. “Touché.”
The server returned to their table, carrying two orders of cheese omelets, toast, and a burger to go. Neave excused herself and went to the women’s washroom in the opposite direction. Jordan shook his head and dove into the plate of food before him. Only after the woman left did Neave come back.
They ate in silence. When they were finished, she laid a few bills on the table and hurried from the restaurant. She couldn’t have stated her independence any better if she’d whacked him over the head with it. He added another ten to cover his share of the bill and followed her out the door.
Dusk had completely descended during the short time they were in the restaurant. The wind had picked up and the few stray flakes of snow increased in volume. Neave waited beside the pickup, her hair already frosted with specks of white. Raine sat on the passenger seat, his snout pressed to the window, fangs bared.
He climbed into the truck, reached over, unlocked the door, and grabbed hold of the dog’s collar. Raine growled as Neave scrambled inside and closed the door. For the time being, he was more interested in the burger Jordan had brought him than in intimidating her. The dog finished the burger in two swallows, then sat begging for more.
“That’s it, boy.”
Raine shook his head, spraying slobber everywhere, then curled up on the seat and let out a loud huff. Neave grimaced in distaste, pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at the spittle on the sleeve of her jacket. Jordan bit back a laugh and eased the pickup back onto the highway.
An hour later they passed a sign for food and lodging. He took a right at the next intersection and followed the road for half a mile or so. The Restawhile Motel sat back a couple hundred yards from the road, surrounded by a dense stand of evergreens sporting fresh jackets of white. By this time, the snow was falling so heavily he could hardly see out the front windshield.
“It looks pretty busy.” Neave pointed to the crowded parking lot barely visible through swirling eddies of snow.
He pulled to a stop in front of the registration office. “Well, the no vacancy sign isn’t lit, so we might be in luck.”
She started to get out of the truck, but he waved her back down. “There’s no point in both of us freezing. You might as well stay here and keep warm.”
She didn’t seem to know how to take this. She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. “But I can’t let you pay for my room.”
The dog swiveled his head from side to side, looking first at him, then Neave, then back again.
Jordan reached for the door handle. “Worry about it later if you have to. Right now we need to get a couple of rooms while there still might be some left.”