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If she hadn't seen the flash of black and white disappearing into the woods, he might have gotten away clean.
Casey's shout of surprised annoyance had barely faded away when the heavy screen door slammed with a crash that heightened her frustration; if the thing wasn't sagging and the hinges so shot, she could have brought in all the groceries at once, instead of having to leave one bag on the steps outside while she wrestled with it. The bag, she thought ruefully as she raced after the fleeing thief, that had held the paper-wrapped roast that had proved too tempting for some visiting canine.
The dog was quick, even weighted down as he was, and was through the broken section of fence that separated the yard from the grove of walnut trees in seconds. Casey was soon deep into the trees, following the raiding animal more by sound than sight.
"Give it up," she panted to herself as she slowed to duck under a low branch. "It's dog food now."
Then she caught another flash of black and white, heard a joyous bark and realized the animal had stopped. She quickly broke into a run again. Then, as she came through the trees into a small clearing, just as quickly stopped dead.
The pickup truck parked beneath the trees was green, nearly the same shade as the leaves, and the small camper shell was woodenexquisitely made and carved, she notedwhich explained why she hadn't seen it until she was nearly on top of it. This small grove was well off the main road, so she had no idea what the truck was doing there. Unless its driver was trying to hide it, she thought warily.
She could hear the dog, who was giving short, sharp little barks that sounded somehow quite proud. The animal was on the other side of the truck, out of her line of sight, and all Casey could think at the moment was that if he was barking, he wasn't eating; maybe there was a chance for the roast yet, what with all the excess wrapping Amos Tut-weiler inevitably put on his meats.
She nearly laughed aloud at the thought of serving a prime rib that had been dragged through the woods by a dog to the refined ladies of the River Bend Historical Society. Then she heard the voice, and all laughter died in her throat.
It was deep, rich, husky, and sent a shiver up her spine. A completely different kind of shiver from the one the persistent voice on the phone caused. How, she wondered, could the human species come up with two masculine voices that had such different effects? She took another step, listening.
"What've you got?"
Another barkCasey could almost see the plumed tail wagging. To a dog, she supposed, a successful hunt was a successful hunt, no matter the method or the prey. She heard the rustle of paper, then, as she approached the front of the truck, a low groan.
"Mutt, where did you get that?" More barks, then, suddenly, a warning growl. Both dog and man turned as she rounded the front fender.
He was tall, was her first thought. Tall and lean. No, he was beyond lean, and the looseness of his clothesworn jeans and a faded red T-shirtindicated that he hadn't always been that way. His hair was a dark, shaggy mass, long enough to drag along his shoulders when he turned his head, but his face was clean shaven, with long, angular planes. His eyes were...
They were dead. It was the only word she could come up with to describe them. Not the color, which was a striking combination of shades she supposed would be called hazel, but the lackluster flatness of them, the hollow lack of any life or emotion, except, perhaps, a mild chagrin at her sudden appearance.
She'd first thought him to be about thirty, but after seeing those eyes, she figured her guess might be several years low.
She fought the involuntary fear that tried to grip her at the sight of him. She had long ago acknowledged the inevitability of the feeling, but she refused to let it rule her. Besides, his voice truly was nothing like the voice that haunted her nights. And it wasn't strangers she had to watch out for. She'd learned that the hard way.
She watched him silently. He looked at the worse-for-wear package the dog had laid at his feet, then back at her. His mouth twisted as he looked back down at the furry hunter.
"Mud, you've really done it this time." The dog yipped happily.
She'd thought he'd said mutt before. The question popped out before she could stop it. "Your dog's name is Mud?"
He turned his head toward her again, and she knew she'd been wrong about his eyes. They looked perfectly normal now, if a bit weary.
"Well," he said wryly, in that voice that still shivered up her spine, "if it wasn't before, it would be now, wouldn't it? I suppose you're the owner of this piece of meat he...liberated?"
"That piece of meat" Casey said sternly, trying to ignore the lolling-tongued grin of the dog, an expression emphasized by the parti-coloring of his face, one dark eye surrounded by black, one blue eye surrounded by white "is a prime rib roast I was supposed to serve Sunday afternoon."
Any trace of amusement vanished from his lean face. He let out a long breath. "What does prime rib go for these days?" he asked, a resignation she didn't understand in his tone.
"That piece was worth about seventy dollars, until your friend there got hold of it." She looked at the dog again. He was, she realized, nearly as lean as his master; she could practically count his ribs.
The man shifted his gaze back to the half-unwrapped piece of meat, which was obviously beyond saving now. "I'm sorry," he said lowly. "He's never done anything like this before. Even on short rations."
"He learns fast, then. I only set the bag down for a moment because my screen door is broken, and I can only hold it and one bag at a time."
"I'm sorry," the man repeated, running a hand through the tangle of his almost black hair. Casey saw the flex of ropy muscles in his arm and again got the impression that he hadn't always been so thin, that once this had been a well-muscled, much more solid man. Had he been ill? she wondered. Was he still?
The dog moved restlessly, creeping forward with a low growl as if to warn this visitor, apparently oblivious of the fact that she was the owner of what he fancied for his dinner. Border collie, she thought suddenly. Like Corky had been. Only Corky had had better manners; Aunt Fay had seen to that.
"Mud, stop." The dog dropped into a motionless crouch.
"Maybe," Casey said as she eyed the nearly gaunt animal, "if you fed him more, he wouldn't be stealing from people."
The man stiffened. When he spoke, his voice was taut and formal, and he looked past her rather than at her. So much for lack of emotion, Casey thought. She'd clearly struck a nerve.
"I can't pay you for the meat. Not in cash. But I can work. Fix that door you mentioned, and the hole in your fence, and anything else that's broken."
"That would take a lot of fixing." The sour words were out before Casey fully realized what he'd said. He knew about the hole in the fence? Had he been watching her? Fear, sudden and sharp, welled up inside her. She fought it down, supplanted it with the realization that if he was that broke, it was doubtful he'd been shelling out change to make midnight phone calls or had a cell phone to make them on.
"I've got nothing but time," he said.
His words were so bitter, his voice so utterly exhausted sounding that for a moment Casey's fear subsided. She was surely being paranoid, she thought. There was no way Jon could find her here. And she would have recognized his voice, wouldn't she? Even that hoarse whisper couldn't disguise it completely, could it? The phone calls were a fluke, just some sicko who had hit her number by accident.
Still, that didn't mean she wanted a total stranger around, especially one who looked as if he'd been on the road for months. Years maybe, she amended, glancing into the bed of the truck. It was full of belongings, yet neat; the clever hand that had built the camper shell was in evidence here, as well. Even in the fading evening light she could see the shelves that lined the perimeter around a raised sleeping area, which gave more storage underneath. Everything was tidy, in its place. She imagined it had to be; order would be a necessity for anyone to live in such a small space. Which was, she realized, what he was doing.
For the first time she looked around more carefully. A small folding canvas chair sat in the shade of the largest tree; a book lay open beside it. There were books, lots of them, in the truck, as well, she realized, along with a small light clipped up over the sleeping area for reading at night. The thought comforted her somehow. A dish that held water for the dog sat next to the truck's front wheel, and a pair of apparently just washed jeans lay over a line strung from the back of the chair to a low branch of the tree.
"Camping out?" she asked, stating the obvious.
He looked at her sharply, then shifted his gaze downward, seeming to stare at the toes of his worn brown leather hiking boots.
"I haven't bothered anybody."
"But you are on private property."
His head came up then. "There were no signs. Or any fence, except yours. That's why I stopped here."
"We don't need signs here. Everybody in River Bend knows whose land it is."
He drew himself up with an effort that made Casey weary just to watch it. "I'll be over in the morning to fix the door and whatever else you think necessary to pay for the meat," he said in clipped, emotionless tones. His jaw tightened slightly. "I don't suppose you could hold off turning me in to the property owner until tomorrow?"
The rising evening breeze lifted a strand of red gold hair and pressed it against her cheek. She brushed it away. "Too late," she said.
His eyes, which had naturally followed the movement of her handor the errant strand of hair, she wasn't sure whichsnapped back to her face. Understanding dawned on his strong, hollow-cheeked features.
A sharp, quick bark from the collie drew their attention downward. The dog had been busy; he'd again snatched up his prize, and nearly half of the roast had disappeared. The torn wrapping flapped around the rest. From the looks of him, Casey thought, he could have devoured it all and still been hungry.
"You've gone that far, dog," she said wryly, "you might as well finish it."
The dog ignored her, his varicolored eyes fastened on his master.
"Why doesn't he just eat it?" Casey asked.
"Because," the man said a little gruffly, "the rest of it's for me." He knelt suddenly beside the dog, putting a broad, strong hand atop the animal's head. "Go ahead, boy," he said softly. "Just don't go getting the idea you can go raiding every time you get a little too hungry."
The collie whined, confused. He lifted the remaining meat gently in his jaws, as if offering it. Casey felt an odd, painful tightening in her throat at the simple gesture of love from an animal most would call dumb.
"All right, Muddy." The man's voice was low and husky, as if his throat were as tight as hers. "We'll share, like always. Thanks."
He took the meat, gave the dog a long, gentle stroke from head to tail and stood up. The collie yipped happily, his plumed tail waving, all once more right in his world. With a wary look at Casey, he trotted over to the bowl of water and lapped noisily.
Casey had to swallow against the lump in her throat. She'd tried so hard to control her emotions for so long now, tried to keep them on a level plane, neither up nor down, and now all her efforts had been shattered by a skinny dog no higher than her knee. Choking back tears, she turned swiftly, barely stopping herself from breaking into a run.
She froze. Her breath caught, and fear flooded her again. She glanced back over her shoulder, half-expecting him to be coming after her. But he hadn't moved, merely stood there, the Border collie now back at his heels. Just the sight of the loyal animal eased her terror, although her common sense told her she was foolish to believe in the instincts of a dog, and a not-too-friendly one at that.
"How did...?" She couldn't get the words out, but he guessed her meaning.
"The mailbox," he said, quickly, as if he'd seen her fear and wanted to ease it.
Dear God, Casey thought. That simple. She'd never even thought of it, never realized that her beloved aunt's name on the battered old tin box out by the road was an advertisement for her own presence.
"Do you want me to leave?" He was studying her intently, and Casey knew what he was seeing. A guarded, jumpy woman, with flame-colored hair that should have been evidence of an equally fiery spirit but wasn't, and a pair of wide blue eyes that were wary more often than not.
And she also knew, with a certainty whose source she couldn't be sure of, that if she told him to leave, he would go. He wouldn't ignore her request; she wouldn't be reduced to pleading, all the while knowing he was bigger, stronger, and could...
With an instinct born of long practice, she bit her lip, using the pain to stop the storm of thoughts that threatened to overwhelm her. God, she hadn't been like this in so long; she'd thought she'd beaten it, that she'd truly left it behind her....
"It's nearly dark," she said, a little breathlessly.
"Yes." He waited silently for a moment, then repeated his words. "Do you want me to leave now?"
He'd been here for days, and she'd never seen him, Casey thought, trying to calm herself. If he'd meant her any harm, surely it would have happened by now. He'd had ample opportunity. Even if she hadn't been convinced by his voice, she was sure now that this stranger had nothing to do with the almost nightly calls.
"I...no. Not tonight. It's late."
"Thank you," he said simply.