Archive for March, 2013

12
Mar
13

Her Sister’s Keeper

This is my latest work in progress, known as a WIP in author acronyms (wow, between the military, law enforcement, and now THIS, my life is FULL of acronyms).  I’m posting more than just the first chapter because the hero doesn’t make his entrance until Chapter 2, and for those of us who read romantic fiction (you know who you are, ladies, and gents) the entrance of the hero is critical.  For those of you who have read Accidental Affair, you will remember Sheriff Grant Donovan.  Thankfully, he’s moved on from his unrequited love with Laine, and it looks like happiness might finally be within his grasp.  Enjoy!

Chapter One

A woman’s terrified scream pierced the still night air.  Juliet Hall stutter-stepped and went absolutely still.  Then chuckled when she realized the unearthly wail had come from the TV, which sat close to the partially opened window inside the quaint bungalow she shared with her sister, Cassie.  She could see the telltale bluish light from halfway down the front walk and hear the melodramatic music that was typical background noise for the ending credits of most horror movies.

“Probably watching Friday the 13th again,” she muttered.  “I love you, Cass, but your taste in films is deplorable.”

She sighed softly as she mounted the three narrow porch steps to the cottage.  The light was out, but the bulb had been flickering when she’d left.  Another incandescent gone to an early grave.  Memo to me, ask Mr. Hobbs to use a fluorescent next time, or spring for one on your own.  Juliet pulled her keys from her purse and opened the screen door.

She moved to insert the keys and the door whispered open with nary a sound.  Juliet froze.  An icy claw materialized inside her chest cavity and sharp talons seized hold of her lungs, holding them captive and refusing to give even an inch.  The light in the tiny living room was on, casting barely enough light to override the glow from the TV.  She paused on the threshold, unmoving and silent, and when nothing jumped out at her those invisible, iron-like fingers released their hold enough for her to draw in a ragged breath.  Her heart thumped uncomfortably and a flash of anger warmed her.

“Cassie.”  She pushed the door open and stepped into the foyer, such as it was.  In front of her was the narrow staircase that led up to the two bedrooms and the one full bath.  To the right of that staircase was the hall that led back to the kitchen and half bath.  To the left of the stairs through an arch constructed during the time her mother had been a tot was the living room.  From here all seemed normal, quiet, but normal.  Her anger sputtered.  Juliet took another breath then closed and locked the door.

“Cassie, you left the door unlocked again.  How many times must we go over this?”

She moved to the foot of the stairs and looked up, but the second level was dark.  A glance down the hall revealed none of the telltale light beneath the swinging door that led to their closet of a kitchen.  Chills fanned over her skin and her pulse picked up several notches.  She strained to hear something, anything over the steadily increasing beat of her heart.

“In local news, a Seattle man is in custody for . . . .”

Juliet tuned that out.  After the noise of the bistro the cottage was quiet, suddenly too quiet, creepy quiet.  Cassie hadn’t been feeling well, which was why Juliet had taken her shift at the restaurant, but her sister didn’t have laryngitis or anything that would compromise her vocal abilities.  No, those she possessed in spades, most often to Juliet’s dismay and embarrassment.  And the fact that the TV was on and Cassie wasn’t sitting in front of it was odd.  Reruns of the sitcom Friends came on at 11:00 p.m., and Cassie never missed an episode.  Even though the show had ended years ago, her sister was still hopelessly in love with Matthew Perry.

“Okay, Cass, this isn’t funny anymore.”  She walked down the narrow hall and through the ancient kitchen door, the hinges moving nearly silently as she flicked on the light.  The bungalow had been built in the 1950s, but her landlord was a meticulous man who was quick to respond to any sort of issue with the aging cottage, even squeaky hinges they hadn’t complained about.  Once in the kitchen a sharp, metallic, singed smell assaulted her nostrils and anger flared back to life when she saw the blue flames beneath the tea kettle.  The fact it wasn’t whistling told her it was empty, yet the stove continued to burn, gray skeins of smoke curling lazily from the spout and beneath the dented, metal lid.  Juliet turned off the burner and turned on the vent fan.  “Damn it, Cassie.  Are you trying to burn the place down?”

The kitchen had two doors, the one that led in from the hall and the other that opened into a small breakfast nook connected to the living room by another graceful wooden archway.  The first level of the two-story cottage was basically an oval, with the stairs at the center.  Juliet stuck her head through the opposite door and looked around, but the eating area and the living room were empty.  With an irritated huff she retraced her steps and mounted the stairs.

When her sneaker-clad foot hit the fourth step it slipped and she shot a hand out to grip the banister, barely preventing a tumble back from whence she’d come.  “What the hell?”  She looked down at the polished wood.  There was a dark splotch on the sturdy oak and in the residual light from the lamp in the living room it looked like chocolate syrup.  First the door, now this.  Heat expanded inside her chest and she didn’t bother to hide the irritation in her voice.

“C’mon, Cassie, we agreed no food upstairs.  We just got rid of the mice!”

Juliet backed up a step and reached for the switch that would illuminate the second floor landing and thereby the stairs.  Nothing.  Her anger receded a tiny bit and apprehension shivered through her like a dark mist.  She knew it was ridiculous, she’d seen it done a thousand times in movies and rolled her eyes, yet she couldn’t stop herself from flipping the switch several more times.  Nope, you got it right the first time.  The light doesn’t work.

That dark mist that had been so fleeting and diaphanous solidified a little, cold tentacles forming and searching through her midsection with icy, menacing intent.  She clutched a hand to her stomach, as if by doing so she could dissipate the chill gathering and expanding there.  Reaching into her purse she retrieved a miniature flashlight and allthough the light was small, the illumination it gave off was not.  The bright, glaringly white glow from the LED sent shadows scurrying out of the way.  It also showed her that it was not chocolate syrup on the stairs.

The dark coldness inside her went from fog-like to a solid mass in less than a heartbeat, encasing her heart and lungs.  Her eyelids fluttered as she bent down and touched trembling fingers to the sticky, crimson smear bearing the pattern of the sole of her shoe.  She looked up several steps and nausea roiled when she saw more of the same.  Her diaphragm spasmed, forcefully expelling her pent up breath.  She dropped the light and her purse, fear surging through her.  Taking the steps two at a time she raced to the second floor, following the blood trail.

“Cassie!”

Juliet crashed through Cassie’s door, but the room was empty.  Her clothes were scattered about, as they always were, and her bed was unmade.  Nothing looked amiss, but something was dreadfully wrong.  Juliet could feel it, and it was a feeling that was all too familiar.  Panic rose, followed by nausea.

“Answer me, Cass!” she called as she flew to the bathroom.  The image of Cassie taking a relaxing bubble bath with her headphones on made hope burst in her chest.  Cassie could have cut herself shaving, which would explain the blood on the stairs since they kept the first aid kit in the kitchen where it was most often needed.  If that was the case she’d first kiss her sister, then throw her damned iPhone and earbuds into the water, and forbid her to ever shave her legs again.

When the bathroom, too, proved empty the wave of reality and dread that stormed over her almost buckled her knees.  Juliet braced a hand against the doorframe and stared at the only other door, her bedroom door.  That was when she noticed the pale, golden glow barely escaping through the narrow crack beneath the panel.  It was too faint to be incandescent or even fluorescent, but she knew what it was, and she knew it shouldn’t be there.

Despair rose up in her and tears formed as a pained, whispered, “No,” escaped her.  She took a step and her legs trembled.  The light coming from under the door flickered and she gripped the stair railing, her muscles refusing to move.  What if he was still here?

Deal with it, Juliet, she told herself.  You’ve always been the strong one.  Now is NOT the time to chicken out.  There’s still a chance . . . .

Juliet closed her eyes, her lungs struggling to expand against the ever-tightening band of terror winding around them.  Her chest was painfully taut, her heart drumming against her sternum in wild staccato.  She started when she heard small, pained whimpers echoing in the hall and her head snapped first one direction, then the other, her eyes searching frantically for the source.  The soft, plaintive cries continued, and she realized they were coming from her own mouth.  She pressed her lips together and held her breath.  When her throat started to burn she inhaled sharply, then focused on the door and forced herself to move.

The latch hadn’t engaged so when she pressed a hand against the heavy panel it swung easily inward.  Juliet froze in the doorway.  She blinked several times, her brain unwilling and unable to process what she was seeing.  When her synapses finally fired she dropped to her knees, silent sobs clogging her throat.  Her jaw worked soundlessly and tears obscured her vision.  Grief stormed over her like horses hooves, sharp, cutting, and relentless as she stared, unable to tear her eyes away.

“Oh, Cassie,” she whispered.  “Oh, God . . . no . . . !”

In the glow from more than a dozen candles Cassie’s golden hair glittered like sunlight, her tanned skin burnished and iridescent.  Those Caribbean blue eyes that were usually so full of life and laughter were focused on the ceiling, unblinking and unseeing.  Juliet doubled over as the pain roared through her like a legion of chainsaws, razor-like teeth ripping mindlessly through flesh, bone, and anything else in their way.  Juliet stared at her sister’s lifeless body, her eyes taking in the bound hands and ankles, the rose petals scattered over the comforter, the dark splatters on the walls and ceiling, the burgundy blood pooling on the floor beneath the mattress.  She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe, and then she saw the words printed so neatly on the wall in what must have been Cassie’s blood.

IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU.

It was then she started screaming.

****

The sound of screeching tires drew her gaze and she turned her head that direction.  Detective Daniel Riordan flew out of the nondescript sedan outfitted with blue and red flashing lights.  White hot anger boiled in her belly and exploded upwards, nearly blinding her.  She launched herself from the porch.

“This is your fault!” she screamed.  A nearby police officer looped an arm around her waist, but she put up such a struggle that he signaled for help.  “You said he wouldn’t bother me anymore!”  Tears filled her eyes and they slid down her face as she fought against the policemen.  “Now Cassie is dead, and it’s your fault!”  She realized the two cops weren’t going to let her go and stopped struggling, but the rage continued to seethe.  “Wow.  That restraining order you suggested did a great job of protecting me.  Too bad it didn’t cover my sister!”

Anguish snuffed out her rage and pulled her into a whirlpool of frigid darkness.  She sagged against the officers.  Unfortunately, the shadows only made her last image of Cassie blaze with Technicolor clarity.  The neon pink of the sheer, baby-doll negligee glowed with eerie brightness.  She was naked from the waist down and her legs spread wide, each ankle tied to a bedpost.  Her hands were tied in a similar fashion at the head of the double bed with colorful scarves, a wide strip of thick silver duct tape covering her mouth.  Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, a wound that summoned death in less than a minute.  Unfortunately, she knew Cassie’s death had not been so quick, and had probably been far more painful.  Her sister’s body was an angry, bleeding roadmap of cuts and lacerations, purposely inflicted for torture’s sake alone.  A keening wail tore free from Juliet’s throat and she sank down on the bottom step of the porch, tears obscuring her vision.

“Juliet, I’m so sorry . . . .”

She dropped her forehead onto her knees and wrapped her arms around her shins.  “Just go away!” she screamed.  Sharp, rending pain blossomed in her chest, as if her heart was being ripped slowly and excruciatingly down the middle.  “Please . . . !”  Her voice broke and sobs erupted.  She heard him sigh heavily and then his footsteps took him away.

How had this happened?  Why Cassie?  For more than a year George Mayfield had stalked and terrorized her, but he’d barely even glanced at her sister.  Even when Cassie got in the man’s face it was as if she was invisible, his eyes for Juliet alone.  The knowledge Cassie wasn’t the first to die at Mayfield’s hands only amplified her grief.  She fought to breathe as the memory faded in from black.

“That son of a bitch!”

Juliet glanced up from her latte and was taken aback by the anger in her sister’s usually smiling face.  She followed the direction of Cassie’s gaze and her heart froze.  Bright cobalt blue eyes set beneath black, slashing brows watched her with an intensity that was now familiar but still terrifying.  He stood across the street, the long overcoat tailored to fit his tall, fit physique, hands clasped neatly in front of him.  Most women would find his striking, James Bond-type looks desirable, but the only emotions he inspired in her were cold fear and sheer panic.  The restraining order forbade him from getting within 500 yards of her, and across the street from the quaint coffee shop at Pikes’s Place Market was well within that distance.  She reached for her cell phone but Cassie was already on her feet and striding toward the man.

“What are you doing here?” Cassie demanded.  Mayfield didn’t even look at her and Cassie stood toe to toe with him.  “Answer me, you bastard!”

A faint smile curved his mouth as he continued to look over her sister’s head.  Swallowing her fear, Juliet forced her feet to move.  She ran up behind Cassie and grabbed her arm but Cassie shook her off.  Juliet gasped when Cassie planted both hands on Mayfield’s chest and shoved for all she was worth.

That’s what it finally took to get his attention.  He stumbled backwards but quickly regained his balance.  His brows rose and eyes widened in surprise, and he looked at Cassie as if she’d just materialized out of thin air.  He blinked, stared at her for a few seconds, then his eyes swiveled back to Juliet and his previous expression returned.  Juliet felt the blood drain from her face and her heart hit the cement.

That was the only time Mayfield had given Cassie more than a passing glance, and that had been more than three months ago.  Now, he’d done more than glance at her sister.  He’d killed her.  Sorrow wrapped tightly around her middle and forced deeper, harder sobs from the depths of her soul.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry, Cass,” she whispered brokenly.  “I’m so sorry!”

Not your fault, Juliet.  At least now it doesn’t hurt anymore.

****

“You should have protected her.  She was your baby sister, and she worshiped the ground you walked on!  Where were you?”

Juliet stared at her mother in shock.

“Helen,” her father said, easing down on the edge of the hotel room’s king-sized bed, “that’s enough.”

“Enough?”  Her mother gaped at him.  “Cassie would never have come here if not for Juliet, Bill!”

Her father rose.  “I said enough.”

Juliet crossed to the window of the high-rise hotel and pressed her forehead against the cool glass.  She had known her mother would blame her; some things never changed.  Juliet had been five when Cassie was born, and her mother told her it was a big sister’s duty to watch out for and protect her younger sibling.  Oddly, Juliet never minded the responsibility, even though while growing up she wasn’t around enough to do much watching or protecting.  Regardless, people often joked that she and Cassie were so close they were like twins born five years apart, and those people were right.  She and Cassie finished each other’s sentences, they could decipher what the other thought or felt with just a look, and Juliet couldn’t remember the last time they’d fought, despite the fact they had lived and worked together for nearly four years.  Grief scorched through her once more, turning her heart to ash, and it was almost more than she could bear.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” she whispered.  Tears burned and it felt like a cannonball had just punched through her, leaving a gaping, bleeding hole in her torso.  “I’m so sorry.”

Her father stood at her back and rested his hands on her shoulders.  “Juliet, this is not your fault.”

She closed her eyes.  “Yes, it is, Dad.”  A strangled sob escaped her and she fought not to remember.  “I should have . . . sent her back to California . . . I should have . . . gotten a gun . . . done something to make sure she would be safe . . . but I never thought he’d go after her.”  She covered her face with her hands.  “I should never have left her alone.”

Her mother’s voice cut with the cold sharpness of a scalpel.  “No, you shouldn’t have.”

“Helen.”  Her father’s voice had taken on an edge that was in itself a warning.

“We’ll be taking Cassie back to San Diego,” her mother continued, as if her husband hadn’t spoken.  “Say your goodbyes now, because I don’t want to see you at the funeral.”

Juliet heard her father’s sharp inhale.  She turned and stared at her mother, tears blurring her vision and anguish rushing through her in jagged, radiating waves that shredded her insides.

“Mom . . . !”

“Helen, you don’t mean that.”

Her mother rose and straightened her spine, tears sliding down her cheeks as she fixed Juliet with a blistering glare.  “Yes, I do.  Cassie is coming home with us, and you, Juliet, are no longer welcome.”

Juliet hadn’t thought her heart could hurt anymore, but as her mother’s blue eyes bored into hers that shredding sensation grew sharper.  Then she felt the freeze.  She knew it was her brain’s reaction to a perceived deadly threat, but she welcomed the numbness.  Still, her throat closed up and for a couple seconds she couldn’t draw breath.

A glance at her father only increased the chill.  He was shocked, she recognized the anguish in his eyes, but she knew he’d never gainsay his wife.  Her mother wore the pants in the family.  She always had.  If not for that fact, Juliet would probably have had a more normal upbringing.  The tears fell and she wiped them away.

“I love you, Mom,” she whispered after several long, taut moments.  “You, too, Dad.”  She walked to the door and grasped the handle.  “I’m sorry.”

More tears didn’t come, much to her surprise.  Even after her parent’s hotel room door closed behind her, her eyes stayed dry.  A heavy sigh escaped her and she started walking.

She hadn’t really cried since the night Cassie died.  Every time she thought of her sister she got teary-eyed, but before the weeping could begin in earnest her brain seized up and choked off the waterworks.  Eventually the dam would either burst or she would completely shut down, that much she was sure of.  Right now the latter seemed the best option.

I’m sorry, Jules.  You didn’t deserve that.  I love her, but Mom can be a real bitch.

“I know, Cass,” Juliet said softly.  “I know.”

This wasn’t your fault.  You didn’t kill me, Mayfield did.

Now the stinging started.  “I know, little sister.”

Don’t let her get to you.

“Easier said than done.”

Juliet walked to the elevator, pushed the button, and waited for the car.  In movies and TV shows, it would be at this point that one or both of the misguided parents would chase her down, sorrowful and repentant.  The mom and/or dad would apologize, everyone would burst into happy tears, and they’d all embrace.  Roll joyful music with ending credits here.  Juliet didn’t even look.  Her mother wouldn’t apologize, ever, and her father might, but not here and only if her mom wasn’t watching.  Juliet loved her dad, but his spine only moved in the direction her mother chose.  Cassie was right.  Her mom could be a bitch.

Juliet walked through the lobby of the hotel without really seeing any of it.  Her brain was in tumble-dry mode, meandering, meaningless thoughts spinning to distract her from the emptiness in her soul.  She made her way to the elevator that led to the parking structure, knowing Detective Riordan would follow her.  Even though she’d left protective custody to see to her parents and the release of Cassie’s body, the man had stayed close.  Each time they made eye contact he held her gaze for several seconds before the guilt manifested and he turned away.

In the week since Cassie’s death she had seen him often, but hadn’t spoken to him directly.  The obligatory post-crime interview he’d conducted had not been pleasant for either of them.  Things had left her mouth she’d never thought herself capable of saying, and once her fury was spent she hadn’t spoken again.  She knew her continued silence ate at him, and even though she realized he was not to blame for her sister’s murder she couldn’t summon the will to apologize for the awful things she’d said.  It just hurt too much.

The parking garage was filled with cars but there was nary a person to be seen.  The sun was bright outside, not an everyday occurrence in Seattle, but the light had a difficult time penetrating the narrow open space between the thick, cement slabs.  Shadows gathered in corners, between cars, overhead, and behind her like scuttling, whispering specters that shifted with her every step.  It sent a shudder through her, and she wrapped her arms around herself.  She looked around, eyes darting back and forth, ears alert for any sound.  Maybe she should have asked Detective Riordan to follow a little closer.

Her heels tapped rhythmically on the concrete as she reached into her pocket for her keys.  She needed to finish packing up the bungalow, although she wasn’t sure where she was going once she was done.  Maybe she’d visit Amanda in Chicago.  They had danced and lived together at the American Ballet Theater until Amanda had blown out an Achilles, but they kept in contact and remained friends.  Juliet knew her former roommate would help her however she could, even if that was only giving her a place to stay until she figured out what she wanted to do.

A dark cloud of depression settled over her as she contemplated going back to the nearly empty cottage.  Thanks to Mr. Hobbs, most of her and Cassie’s things were now in storage.  What remained were personal items Juliet couldn’t bear to part with, and those had been condensed into two large cardboard boxes.  A crime scene cleanup crew had finished sanitizing her former bedroom, and the smell of disinfectant and new paint now permeated the air of the quaint house.  Her stomach rolled.  No, she couldn’t go back there, not yet.  The few, brief times she’d been there to pack up had been upsetting enough.  She choked down the memories that threatened and took a deep breath as she approached the blue Camry.

Her gaze continued to sweep back and forth, searching for any sign of her nemesis.  The garage appeared empty.  Once she reached her car she tried to slide the key into the lock but couldn’t.  She bent over to take a closer look and ice gathered in her belly.  Something had been shoved into the lock.  Juliet inhaled sharply and straightened.

George Mayfield stood behind her, their reflection cast in the driver’s window.  Where the hell had he come from?  Her heart stopped, blood freezing in her veins and fear detonating in her chest.  Before she could react an arm snaked around her neck and a hand clamped over her mouth.  Her scream was cut off as he squeezed her windpipe.

“Time to finish what we started, Juliet,” he hissed in her ear.  “You will be the proof I need to show him, to show everyone, what I am capable of.”

For the first time since Mayfield had started harassing her Juliet went into fight mode.  She brought the stiletto heel of her shoe down on Mayfield’s foot and a surge of exhilaration hit her when a pained cry escaped him.  His hold on her loosened and she tried to twist away.  She was unsuccessful, so she drove her elbow backwards, hitting him in the gut.  A sharp exhale of breath warmed her ear and he stumbled.  He fell backwards, dragging her along, more air forced out of his lungs as he collapsed and she landed on top of him.  His arms fell to the side.  Juliet rolled away, grabbed one of her shoes, and swung the ice-pick-like heel toward him.

He moved out of the way just before the stiletto made contact with his chest.  Then another body entered the fray.

“Get out of here!” Riordan shouted.  He tackled Mayfield and the two started rolling around.  “Go!”

She didn’t have to be told twice.

Her keys lay on the ground next to the Camry.  She grabbed them, ran around to the passenger side, and less than five seconds later the engine of the Toyota came to life.  She jerked the shift lever into reverse, stomped on the accelerator, and shot backwards out of the parking spot.  Tires squealed on the concrete, echoing eerily in the garage, and she barely avoided hitting the two wrestling men.  After throwing the lever into drive her foot hit the floor and the Camry jumped forward.  Without a backwards glance she sped down the ramp and out of the garage.

 

 

 

 Chapter Two

 

The first thing Sheriff Grant Donovan saw when he rounded the curve in the road was the steam coming from under the hood of the blue Camry.  He slowed his SUV, and the next thing that registered was the seemingly never-ending pair of tanned, curvy legs that led up to a tight, round backside encased in cut-off jeans.  Holy mother of mile-long, he thought.  Now that’s a pair of legs.  The woman’s top half was hidden beneath the raised hood as she bent over the engine compartment, heated mist swirling around her and obscuring her from view.  He pulled to a stop behind the sedan, radioed in, and turned off the engine.

He didn’t want to startle her so he made no attempt to move quietly, but apparently the woman didn’t hear him as he left the Yukon and walked around the passenger side of the Toyota.  Her focus remained on the steam-shrouded engine.  Gravel crunched beneath his boots and he smiled when she cursed fluently.  He heard a sharp intake of breath and a hiss.

“Yikes!”

“Excuse me, miss,” he said as he rounded the front passenger side.  “Having some car trouble?”

She yelped and jerked upright, hitting her head on the hood.  “Ouch!”  The woman scuttled immediately backwards.

He took one step forward.  “Are you all right?”

A gust of wind sent the steam swirling away and he finally got a look at her.  He paused and blinked as a pair of wide-set, vivid blue eyes stared back at him.  They were the color of tropical seas, a mix of sky blue and green, and lined with thick, dark lashes.  Damn, and I thought her legs were gorgeous.  He saw the surprise and the fear there and gave her a reassuring smile as he touched the brim of his hat.  She took another step back and her posture tensed.

“Afternoon.”  He glanced at the engine.  “I’m Sheriff Donovan.  Are you okay?”

Her face was tight with anxiety but she managed a short nod.  “Fine.”  Her gaze flicked to the engine and then back to him.  “I think it’s the radiator hose.”

“Mind if I take a look?”  He waited until she gave her assent, trying to appear as nonthreatening as possible, and then bent over the engine compartment.  Sure enough, he could see the ruptured hose through the residual steam.  He gave her a sidelong glance.  “Well, you’re right.  Looks like I need to call you a tow truck.”

A heavy sigh escaped her.  “Just what I need.”

He chuckled.  “Shouldn’t be a problem.  Radiator hoses are easy.”  He started walking back toward the SUV.  “You can sit in my car while we wait.  It’s a mite warm out here and my AC, unlike yours, works.  It shouldn’t take Eddie more than half an hour to get here.”

“You’re going to stay with me?”

He stopped and looked over one shoulder.  He heard the dread in her voice and wondered what was going on with the woman beside a ruptured radiator hose.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Her eyes widened slightly.  “You don’t have to do that.  I’m sure you have better things to do than waste your time sitting here with me.”  She took a deep breath and focused on her tennis shoes.  “I’ll be fine by myself until the tow truck gets here.”

Grant faced her.  He glanced at her license plate: Washington State.  So, she was a West Coast woman.  Big surprise.

“I’m sure you will, ma’am,” he drawled, “but we do things differently here in Montana.  Your feminist hackles can get as prickly as they want, but this is going to work one of three ways.”  Her brows rose and Grant lifted one corner of his mouth in a half smile.  “One, we can wait here, together, in my air-conditioned vehicle until Eddie gets here.  Two, we can wait here, you outside, and me in my air-conditioned vehicle until Eddie gets here.  Or, three, I can drive you into town and drop you at Nina’s Diner, and you can wait for Eddie there until he gets to town with your car.”  He gave her a pointed look.  “Take your pick.”

She stared at him, chewing her lower lip.  He watched the flash of emotions in her eyes: alarm, apprehension, uncertainty, and, oddly enough, relief.  She glanced around, as if hoping for someone else to come out of the woods and save her, and when no one did she reluctantly turned her gaze back to him.

She was quite pretty, and he hadn’t seen a nicer pair of legs . . . ever.  Her face was heart-shaped, her chin slightly pointed, those amazing eyes set above high cheekbones.  Her mouth drew his gaze briefly.  It was small with a full bottom lip and a slightly narrower top lip that had a pronounced cupid’s bow.  She almost appeared to be pouting, but her expression was thoughtful rather than petulant.  Finally, she spoke.

“Well, I am sort of hungry.”  She wrapped her arms around herself.  “I haven’t eaten since dinner last night.”

“You’re either not a breakfast person, or you’re a late riser.”  He glanced at his watch and sent a wry smile her way.  “It’s after noon.”

Her brows drew together and a spark of annoyance flared in her eyes.  “Well, I wasn’t hungry when I pulled off the interstate, and apparently there’s nothing between the interstate and the closest town, which is where I was trying to get to when the hose went.”  She gave him a scowl.  “That sort of limits one’s options.”

“Yes, it does.”  He chuckled, walked to the passenger door of the Yukon, and opened it.  “Your chariot, madam.  Grab your bag.  I need to get you to Nina’s before starvation sets in.”

She watched him warily for several tense seconds and then sighed and looked at the car.  “Should I lock it?”

Grant bit back a laugh because he knew she was serious.  Ah, city folk.  “You can, if it will make you feel better.  But out here people barely make the top five list of things you need to worry about.”  He lifted one brow.  “There are several animal species far more dangerous, and unless you have a bunch of food in your car, which I doubt because you said you’re hungry, the critters won’t bother it.”

She didn’t move, her gaze fastened on the Camry.

He tried not to roll his eyes.  “You’ve already seen how much traffic we have on this road.  How long have you been waiting here?”

She pulled a cell phone from her pocket and glanced at it.  Then she frowned and slid her gaze his direction.  “Twenty minutes.”

“And how many cars have you seen?”

Her scowl darkened.  “Just yours.”

“How many cars did you see between here and the interstate?”

She fixed a glare on him.  “Just yours.”

He tipped his head.  “I can pretty much guarantee the next person who sees your car will be Eddie, with his tow truck.”  He gestured toward the passenger seat.  “You ready to go now?”

She started chewing her bottom lip again.  It was nearly a minute before she moved, but Grant just stood there, waiting patiently.  At least the fear had faded.  That was a plus.  Finally she huffed, opened the driver’s door, and reached across to the front passenger seat.

Grant’s chest tightened and he slid his hand toward his gun.  He watched her carefully, mindful of any untoward movement that would signal she was more than just a stranded motorist.  He might be just a small town sheriff, but he was a US military combat veteran and well aware that people were often not what they seemed.  When she looped the straps of a leather purse over her shoulder he relaxed just a hair, and when she pulled a large, black duffel bag from the backseat he released the grip of his pistol.  After closing the door she moved around to the trunk and opened it.  He noted the graceful way she moved, fluid and elegant.  She didn’t walk, she flowed, and he found himself momentarily distracted.

“Could you help me, please?” she asked, tossing him a look over her shoulder.

He shook himself and refocused on her.  He was relatively certain she wasn’t going for a weapon so he walked slowly toward her, still alert.  “Of course.  What do you need?”

There were two large cardboard boxes in the trunk.  She grabbed one and looked at him.  “Can you get the other one?  I’ll leave my car here, but I’m not leaving these.”

He glanced at the box and saw the word “Cassie” written on the side.  He wondered if that was her name, but one glance at her face made him think twice about asking.  There was a shadow in her eyes and a tightness about her mouth, and he thought he saw the faint sheen of tears.  He picked up the box, tucked it beneath one arm, and closed the trunk lid.  “Sure thing.  Let’s put them in the back.”

Grant walked around to the back of the Yukon and opened it.  He slid his box into the cargo area and reached for the one she carried.  She hesitated for a split-second then handed it to him and dropped the black duffel next to the boxes.  Without a word she turned on her heel, walked around the side of the Yukon, and slid into the passenger seat.  He looked at the back of her head for a moment before he closed the cargo door and walked around to the driver’s side.

He got behind the wheel, closed the door, and buckled his seatbelt.  She glanced at him and fastened her seatbelt, her expression wary.

“Before we go anywhere I have to ask you one question,” he said.  Her trepidation was obvious and she shifted in her seat, as if suddenly uncomfortable.

“What?”

Her voice was low, almost fearful, and he wondered where all this uneasiness came from.  Perhaps it was because he was a cop, or maybe she had scars that weren’t visible beneath her attractive exterior.  He knew about the latter from personal experience.  Then again, perhaps that was just her personality.  He’d met more than his share of people who were simply overly cautious or afraid of everything.  But, people like that didn’t usually go driving around the backwoods of Montana, or anywhere else, alone and virtually defenseless.  No, people like that usually stayed close to home where everything was familiar and safe.  Hmm.  He had always enjoyed puzzles.

Grant met her gaze and put on a serious expression.  Her eyes widened slightly, and then he smiled.  “What’s your name?”

She blinked at him.  That was obviously not what she had expected.  He saw the convulsive swallow before she took a breath and extended a hand.

“Juliet.  Juliet Hall.”

Grant’s hand engulfed her much smaller one and he nodded once.  Her grip was firm and sure, and he liked the way her fingers fit in his.  “Pleased to meet you, Miss Hall, I’m Grant.  Now, let’s get you something to eat before you waste away.”