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Covert agent Ryder McClintock had returned home for the first time in years only to come face-to-face with Julia Rousseau, the woman with whom he'd once shared a bed--then been forced to leave behind. Forgetting her had been impossible, but because of an accident, she was left with no memory...including the name of her baby's father. A little girl who looked remarkably like Ryder. But before he could tell Julia about their shared past, he needed to protect her and his daughter from someone determined to spoil ...
Covert agent Ryder McClintock had returned home for the first time in years only to come face-to-face with Julia Rousseau, the woman with whom he'd once shared a bed--then been forced to leave behind. Forgetting her had been impossible, but because of an accident, she was left with no memory...including the name of her baby's father. A little girl who looked remarkably like Ryder. But before he could tell Julia about their shared past, he needed to protect her and his daughter from someone determined to spoil their reunion. And as the threats escalated and Julia's memory returned, Ryder sensed her stalker's grudge ran much deeper than they realized....
Julia glanced in her rearview mirror at the car gaining on her and muttered, "Zut alors." She clapped a hand over her mouth. She didn't know she could speak French.
She tried out a few more phrases, clean ones this time, and the words tumbled from her lips in an accent worthy of Pepé Le Pew. Shelby would be thrilled her mom could talk like one of her favorite cartoon characters.
And Dr. Brody, Jim, would be thrilled with this latest discovery—another key to her past.
The glare from the insistent headlights illuminated her car again as she pulled out of the curve. Why did this guy have his brights on? She accelerated on the straightaway, gripping the wheel with clammy hands.
This highway through the mountains always gave her the jitters, ever since she plowed over the guardrail almost four years ago in a howling blizzard.
Her neighbors, the Stokers, cautioned her against taking night classes at the university to prevent her from driving this road after dark, but she had to move beyond her fears. Besides she needed this class to finish her general education requirements and start taking her upper-division psychology courses. She'd just taken her final exam and opted out of the summer session, so she wouldn't have to make this drive at night until the fall.
The car behind her honked and she jumped, jerking the steering wheel to the right. Go around me, you moron. She didn't plan on going any faster than the speed limit. Maybe he'd pass her on the next straightaway. All of the rush-hour traffic had cleared, leaving a handful of cars negotiating the turns and bends between Durango and Silverhill.
Coming out of the next turn, Julia buzzed down thewindow and waved her arm to motion the car around her. She eased off the gas pedal as the car made its move to her left. The sedan pulled into the empty oncoming traffic lane and slowed down next to her.
With her heart galloping, she glanced into the dark car as the driver rolled down the passenger window. A man with black hair and sunglasses leaned toward the open window and yelled. The wind snatched his words, but she could just make out, "Pull over. Flat tire. Lug nuts."
She had a flat tire? The car dropped back and slid in behind her again. Turning down the radio with trembling fingers, she listened for any unusual thumping on the road. Her little car rolled smoothly on the asphalt, taking each turn with ease. How could she have a flat?
Biting her bottom lip, she peered into the rearview mirror at the blue sedan still riding her tail. Was this some kind of trick to get her to pull off the road? Maybe if the guy had a family with him she'd follow his advice, but she didn't have any intention of stopping for some single guy in the middle of the night, especially some single guy wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night. Did he think he was Jack Nicholson or something?
Over the past three years, she'd finally put the freaks and weirdos behind her. She didn't need to go looking for them.
She sped up to put distance between her car and the dark sedan behind her. Her tires squealed as she took the last curve on the highway and her car shuddered in the back. She gasped and squeezed the steering wheel. Maybe she did have a flat.
The light from Ben Pickett's service station glowed at the bottom of the hill, and Julia's pulse slowed to a steady beat. At nine o'clock Ben would still be working.
Careening into the parking lot, she angled her car in front of the brightly lit market. She hunched down in the seat and watched the dark sedan speed past the service station. Either the driver didn't realize she'd stopped or he figured he performed his good deed for the night or he knew he couldn't strangle her at the service station.
She jumped at the tap on her window. Ben, his cap pulled low on his forehead, grinned at her.
Dragging in a breath, she powered down the window. "Hey, Ben."
"You heading home after class?"
Living in Silverhill, everyone knew her business, but she didn't mind. It gave her a sense of security. At least someone cared about her.
"Yeah, I am. A guy pulled up next to me and yelled out the window that I had a flat tire. The car wobbled when I came off the hill."
"Well, let's have a look." He disappeared as he crouched behind her car and then his head popped up. "The tire ain't flat, but the lug nuts on your right rear wheel are loose. I'll tighten those right up."
Ben got some tools, and Julia ambled into the market to get some coffee. She wrapped her hands around the steaming foam cup as she stepped into the cool night air to watch Ben work. Settling her shoulders against her car door, she gazed into the blackness where the road led into Silverhill. No sign of the dark sedan and the dark-haired man.
Why did he tell her she had a flat tire and how did he know the lug nuts were loose?
Unless he'd loosened them.
Julia hated secret admirers.
She crushed the wildflowers in her fist, the petals dropping like tears onto the porch and the sweet smell clinging to her fingers. Someone placed a similar bunch, tied with a pink ribbon, in the same spot two days ago. No note, no name.
Her gaze darted from her fenced-in garden to the street beyond. Nobody lingered to see if she received the gift. Nobody waved, claiming to be the thoughtful neighbor.
Julia hated secrets.
Taking a deep breath, she tilted her head back and drank in the view of tall mountain peaks ringing the cozy town of Silverhill. Their proximity instilled a sense of security deep in her bones. The Colorado Rockies kept the outside world at bay, creating a safe haven for her and her daughter in this little community.
The trees across the road rustled, and Julia narrowed her eyes as she scanned the greenery. The incident with the tire last week had her on edge. She'd asked around and a few people told her a loose wheel could resemble a flat tire on the highway. The man in the car was probably more Good Samaritan than Ted Bundy. But a single woman couldn't be too careful. Especially a single woman with no memory.
She spotted a flash of red clothing zigzagging through the trees and her pulse ticked up a few notches. Tossing the bedraggled bouquet over the porch railing into the dirt, she backed up to her front door and stumbled over the threshold. The screen door slammed and she reached for the door handle.
A woman's voice sang out, "How are you today, Julia?"
Julia peered through the mesh of the screen door, releasing her pent-up breath. Gracie Malone, the town gossip, leaned over her garden fence, waving.
Julia would be damned if she'd have Gracie spreading stories about how she scampered inside her house the minute she saw someone in her front yard.
"I'm just fine, Gracie. Out for an early morning walk?" She shoved the screen door open and wedged her shoulder on the doorjamb.
"Yes, and you? Are you and that adorable little girl of yours going for a hike this morning?" Gracie's bright little eyes, like black buttons, flickered from the beribboned flowers on the ground to Julia's face.
"I'm packing up right now." Or she had been until she noticed the scraggly posies on the porch railing.
"It's such a shame Shelby doesn't have a father." Gracie shook her head back and forth in an exaggerated fashion, her tight gray curls quivering. She tapped her chin. "Charlie's still sweet on you. We have a lot of room in that old Victorian, you know, even with the B and B."
Julia knew Gracie desperately wanted to marry off her only son so she could have more people in the house to boss around and someone to help out with the guests. So desperate she'd saddle her only son with the town freak.
"We're going to get ready for that hike now. You have a good day." Julia left the front door open, settling on locking the screen door. She had more to fear from Gracie Malone and her dull son than some secret admirer. Could that secret admirer be Charlie?
"Mama?" Shelby padded out of her bedroom rubbing her eyes with bunched-up fists.
"Hey, sleepyhead. We're going on a hike this morning." She scooped Shelby into her arms and buried her face in her neck, inhaling the sweet fragrance of watermelon shampoo from her hair. At four, Shelby no longer had that pure baby smell, but new, interesting smells were replacing it. Little girl smells.
Shelby giggled as Julia found her ticklish spot along her collarbone. "I'll help you get dressed."
Twenty minutes later, Julia swung the backpack over her shoulder and locked the front door behind her. Crushing the crumpled flowers into the dirt with her heel, she took Shelby's hand and headed toward the road.
From Silverhill's main street, they picked up the entrance to the mile-long trail that wound its way into the foothills. The trail followed a soft slope, skirting outcroppings of rock and spreading into fields of wildflowers and gentle streams—a perfect outing for a four-year-old and a woman still fighting to regain emotional stability.
Spring had come early to the Rockies and summer was hot on its heels. The early morning sun warmed Julia's face. Shelby slowed the pace by picking up stones, snatching flowers from the rock crevices and veering off the path to chase butterflies.
"Ouch!" A rock bit into Julia's heel. When she stopped to slip off her shoe, Shelby zipped around the next bend. Holding her sneaker, Julia hobbled after her.
"Shelby?" She rounded the corner, but Shelby had disappeared. A swath of anxiety settled on her skin as her gaze raked through the thick patch of trees. Julia plowed forward, rubbing her arms. "Shelby, come back or we're going home right now."
Her mischievous daughter crawled out from behind a log, pinching a worm between two fingers.
"Okay, you can drop that right there." Julia held up her hands, wrinkling her nose at her tomboy daughter.
Shelby placed the worm on the log and waved to it before returning to Julia's side. She grabbed Shelby's wrist and marched her back to the trail. "Stay with me now."
When they got back to the path, a small rock tumbled from above. Glancing up, Julia glimpsed a shadow passing across the face of the cliff. She called out, "Hello?"
A tree rustled and a branch snapped, sending a bird screeching into the sky. She glanced back at the sandy-colored cliffs, tightening her grip on Shelby's wrist. Cupping a hand over her mouth, she breathed in and out slowly to steady her galloping heart. She thought she'd put those panic attacks behind her, but a few crackling twigs and falling rocks could still bring on a racing heart and shallow breathing.
"Run, Mama." Shelby slid out of Julia's clammy grasp and skipped ahead, landing face-down in a patch of bluebells.
"Shelby!" Julia tripped after her, sinking to her knees in the flowers.
Shelby rolled onto her back, covering her face with two small dirty hands. She peeked through her fingers and giggled. A surge of warm relief melted Julia's rigid muscles and she kissed Shelby's butterscotch curls.
"Silly girl. You scared me."
"Mama scared?" Shelby sat up, scooping a handful of bluebells in her fist and dropping them into Julia's lap.
Julia peered into the shadows and crevices of the rocks and shook her head. "No, I'm not scared anymore."
The fear that had enveloped her when she first found herself in Silverhill had dissipated over the past four years, driven away by friendly neighbors, soothing words and warm suppers. But sometimes it descended on her with no warning, dropping like an anvil in the middle of the night or silently stealing over her, one uneasy moment at a time. Like today.
She twisted her head over her shoulder to study the trail she and Shelby had just traversed. A sense of doom dogged her on the hike, a feeling of being watched and followed. It started with the stranger in the car and picked up with the flowers left on her porch two days ago and then again today. Most women would be thrilled with a secret admirer. She wasn't most women.
The flowers could've come from a neighbor. Julia massaged her temples. And she didn't own this trail. Locals and tourists alike took the mile hike up to the rock formations known as "The Twirling Ballerinas." Anyone could've been hiking behind them.
Why didn't they answer when she called out?
Julia cradled the bluebells in her palms and buried her face in their fresh fragrance. Too bad the flowers weren't forget-me-nots.
Maybe then she could remember who she was, remember Shelby's father, and remember what shadowy menace stalked her.
Shelby's hands, smelling of moist dirt, pulled at Julia's fingers. "Peekaboo."
Smiling, Julia spread her fingers wide. "Peekaboo to you."
Whatever happened in her past, it brought Shelby into her life so it couldn't have been all doom and gloom. Her daughter's laughter acted like a ray of sunshine capable of piercing the solid block of ice, which was all that remained of Julia's memory despite Dr. Jim Brody's best efforts.
Shelby shrieked, "No, peekaboo to you."
"Can anyone play this game?"
Gasping, Julia dropped her hands and pulled Shelby against her body before the intruder's voice registered. Shelby squirmed in her arms, and Julia loosened her grip as Clem Stoker came into view, his shaggy gray eyebrows drawn together over his nose.
Shelby scampered toward Clem and threw her arms around his legs. "Uncle Clem."
Julia swallowed the lump in her throat. Of course Clem wasn't Shelby's uncle. Shelby didn't have an uncle or a family or a father, at least none that Julia could remember, but Clem treated them like family as did many of the residents of Silver-hill after Julia's accident.
"How's my buttercup?" He lifted her up in the air and swung her around, shifting his gaze to Julia. "Are you okay, Julia? I didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't." She took a deep, shuddering breath. Just when the residents of Silverhill had stopped tiptoeing on eggshells around her, she had to jump at rustling leaves. "Did you just come up the trail behind us?"
"No." Clem hoisted Shelby on his shoulders. "I'm on my way back from The Twirling Ballerinas. Are you headed that way or do you want to hike back to town with me?"
"We'll go back with you." She hated the tremor in her voice. She knew she had a backbone. It came in handy when she recovered from the injuries she sustained from the car wreck and gave birth to Shelby six weeks later amid strangers.
Posted March 25, 2011
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