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It had been another in a long string of sleepless nights.
Tess O'Neil finally drifted off from sheer exhaustion just after sunrise, only to be awakened by a sharp bark and the bounce of the mattress as her dogs leaped to the floor.
For one terrifying second she thought Eddie had found her, and she automatically reached for the weapon she kept under the bed. Her hand had just touched metal when the phone rang again and she realized what had sent her dogs on alert.
The two Belgian Malinois shepherds, Blossom and Mac, stood shoulder to shoulder next to her bed, their amber eyes fixed on the bedroom door on the other side of the room, ears pricked forward at the unfamiliar sound of the phone. Tess pushed back the covers, heart pounding. It had to be a wrong number, but if it wasn't
The ringing continued as she and the dogs crossed the hall to the old-fashioned ranch house kitchen where the plain white phone hung on the wall next to the refrigerator. She'd had the landline connected so she could send and receive faxes and have ridiculously slow internet. She never expected the damned thing to actually ring.
Tess hesitated for a few seconds, decided it was better to know than not, and snatched the receiver off the hook.
"Hello." She fully expected to hear her stepfather's drug-roughened voice either threatening or taunting her and unconsciously put a hand on Mac's head for reassurance.
"Ms. O'Neil?" The voice was deep, somewhat hesitant, definitely not Eddie. But how the hell did this guy know her name? Or rather, her assumed name?
"Who is this?" Tess demanded, then instantly regretted her tone. Brittle. Edged with fear. She didn't want to sound fearful, didn't want to give Eddie the satisfaction if the guy on the other end of the line was one of his minions. But it was hard to sound normal when her heart was beating a hundred times faster than usual.
There was a brief, quite possibly stunned, silence before the caller said, "I'm Zach Nolan. I live across the road."
"I see." Tess took hold of the phone cord. Anyone could say they lived across the road.
"I was wondering if you have plans for your fields and pastures?"
It took Tess a moment to wrap her mind around the unexpected question. "My fields and pastures?" she asked blankly.
"Yeah. The big green things surrounding your house."
There was a touch of gentle humor in his voice, as if he was trying to make a connection, reassure her. Tess instantly drew back. No connections.
"Until you took over the place, I grazed my cattle on those fields and paid a rental fee. I was wondering, if you aren't using the fields, if we could make a similar arrangement."
He'd barely finished his sentence when Tess blurted, "No." She let go of the phone cord and pressed her fingertips against the thickened skin on her left cheek where the stitches had been, felt the residual pain from the torn and stitched muscles below then dropped her hand. It was a habit she was trying to break.
"You're sure?" The touch of humor was gone, replaced by irony bordering on sarcasm, triggered no doubt by her instant and adamant response.
"Well, thanks. Sorry to have wasted your time."
"No problem." Tess hung up the phone without saying goodbye and put a hand on her forehead, pushing the bangs back and wishing she'd asked how he'd gotten her name. It had to be from that overly friendly lady who ran the local post office.
Tess O'Neil was the authorized signature for the Angstrom Land Company, the limited liability corporation that had leased the small ranch where she was living. If you could call it living. More like hiding.
In reality, Tess was the Angstrom Land Company, but no one knew thatthe beauty of an LLC in the state of Nevada. She could conduct her financial business without using personal, traceable credit cards or her real name Terese Olan to her former employers, Terry to her handful of friends. But her grandmother had called her Tess and that was who she'd become. If she was skirting the law by informally becoming Tess O'Neil in addition to hiding behind the LLC, she'd take that chance. It beat the alternative.
She didn't know if Eddie would go so far as to hire a private detective, but he had a lot of nefarious contacts. Not knowing his reach was one of the things that kept her awake at night.
Tess walked over to the sink and started the tap running into the enamel basin before she opened the back door. The screen door wobbled on its loose hinges as she pushed it open and the dogs raced outside. They stopped in tandem a few feet from the bottom porch step, black ears pricked forward, muscles tensed and ready for action. It was a morning ritual they'd developed since moving into the house thirteen days ago. They were city dogs, still acclimating themselves to the sights, sounds and smells of the country. As was Tess.
She watched and waited until the dogs finally dropped their guard, first Mac and then Blossom. They began snuffling in the grass, checking out the action they'd missed the night before as they headed for the taller grass to do their business.
Tess closed the door and filled a glass with water, turned off the faucet and leaned back against the counter. If the dogs were relaxed, she could relax. In theory anyway.
Her heart rate still wasn't quite normal. Had the caller really been the guy across the road?
She set the glass down and opened the drawer where she'd spotted the printed paper with local phone numbers while unpacking her meager kitchen supplies a few days ago. She traced a finger down the list. Nolan. Zach. Okay. He existed.
But was it him?
Her hand only shook a little as she dialed the number. Halfway through the second ring he answered. Same voice. Tess hung up.
Zach set down the phone with a shake of his head. A prank call at eight in the morning was a first, as was the oddly defensive phone conversation he'd just had with the new neighbor. Defensive to the point of rudeness. What the hell?
Let it go. The woman was perfectly within her rights to say no to his offer. She could work on her delivery, but
Zach grabbed his work gloves off the table, trying to focus on the day instead of how much hay he was going to have to buy to tide things over now that it was pretty damned obvious he'd lost the pastures he'd been counting on.
His index finger broke through the work-thinned leather at the tip of the glove as he pulled it on. This was turning out to be a grand day. He could only imagine what delights the north pasture held for him. And, of course, the duct tape was not in the junk drawer where it belonged. His exposed fingertip was simply going to have to take its chances.
Zach tucked his cell phone into his pocket and headed out the door where he could see his three daughters walking up the driveway to his sister-in-law, Beth Ann's, trailer. Beth Ann worked at the school as an instructional aid and gave the girls a ride every morning after Zach fed them breakfast and helped gather schoolwork, lunches and other essentials before nudging them out the door. Beth Ann was a stickler for promptness. If the girls were late, they walked the half mile to school. Simple as that.
He stopped and watched for a moment, wondering why his youngest daughter, Lizzie, was wearing his oldest daughter, Darcy's, old purple coat instead of her own new red one. He made a mental note to ask about it at dinner that night. Maybe Beth Ann had washed it. She was a bit of a clean freak, but he wasn't complaining. She was doing him a huge favor living on the ranch in the hired-hand trailer, handling the girl stuff that he, the oldest of four brothers, did not feel qualified to deal with.
Benny, Zach's young Border collie, was waiting for him at the old truck he used for beating around the ranch. The dog jumped up on the flat bed and danced excitedly, staying just out of reach in case Zach had some kind of crazy idea about not taking him.
"Don't worry," Zach muttered. "You're going." Benny, who seemed to understand every word Zach said, sat his butt down and let his tongue loll out in a canine grin.
By some miracle the ancient rig started first try and Zach headed down the lane leading toward the north hay pasture and the pump that needed to be pulled for repairs. He just hoped that he could fix it himself because if not, with cattle prices the lowest he'd seen them in three years, he'd have to cut yet another corner to make ends meet. He truly hoped that wasn't the case, because right now he was running out of corners. His cousin, Jeff, had started running some cattle with him last year and shared some of the costs, but it still wasn't enough to ease the pressure of the medical bills. All he wanted was to give his girls a comfortable life, to help compensate for losing their mom to breast cancer.
It wasn't working out so well. His daughters wore whatever Beth Ann could find on sale while he duct-taped his work gloves and prayed that the pump could be jury-rigged into lasting another year so he had the bucks to buy hay.
He needed that pasture.
Tess put on a pot of coffee, checked her email, then let the dogs back inside. Two hours of sleep were not enough, but it'd be a while before she could try again. Her adrenaline was too high, her nerves too jangled by the unexpected call.
Sad, really, that an innocuous phone call from a neighbor could ruin a day.
Tess fed the dogs, dumping copious amounts of the ultra-healthyand therefore ultraexpensivefood their former owner had fed them into two large stainless steel bowls. Mac dove in. Blossom hung back and waited for him to finish, even though she had her own dish.
"You're setting a bad precedent," Tess muttered to the dog as she went back into the bedroom to change into her work clothes, which were actually new, since she no longer fit into her old clothes.
The jeans she put on were just jeans, bought for a reasonable price online and delivered by mail. No fashionable fading, studs or strategically placed frayed areas. The T-shirt was equally plain. Long-sleeved, black and boxy with a crew neck. One hundred percent cotton without a hint of spandex. It hung loosely from her shoulders, even though she'd now gained fifteen pounds and was curvier than she'd been her entire life. The curves were part of her disguise, lame as it was, since there was no way she could disguise the scars across the left side of her face.
Her ex-lawyer and savior, William, had suggested gaining weight in addition to dying her dark red hair dark brown and buying glasses she didn't need. She'd told William that the last thing she felt like doing was eating. Actually, for the first week after the attack, she couldn't eat, but instead sipped tiny meals through a straw. And even if she did gain weight, she'd pointed out bitterly, it wasn't like she could hide the scars.
No, William had agreed in his understated way, but overly skinny people stood out almost as much as redheads and after the attack she'd become alarmingly gaunt. He was too polite to say skeletal.
So during the six weeks she'd hidden out at William's San Jose home after the attack, Tess focused on gaining weightno easy task for a model who'd spent the past decade eating the bare minimum and feeling guilty about even that small amount. Depression and fear coupled with healing scar tissue hadn't made eating any easier, but Tess persevered. Pasta, milkshakes, ice cream. Formerly forbidden foods were now her allies and she choked them down, wishing she could enjoy finally being able to eat whatever she wanted.
By the time the LLC had been formed and William had helped her lease-option and sparsely furnish this place in the Nevada outbacka place where Eddie would stand out like a sore thumbTess had, for the most part, outgrown her clothes. She'd celebrated with an online shopping spree since she was too paranoid to shop in stores, and didn't care if the clothing fit rightwhich it didn't. Not in her experience anyway.
The tops didn't cling to her upper body, the jeans didn't hug her legs. Everything was loose and comfortableand made her feel invisibleor as invisible as a person could be with a ruined face.
When Tess came back into the kitchen, the oversize stovetop espresso maker began to gurgle and the dogs instantly ran to the back door to wait while Tess poured coffee into a tall travel mug and added a healthy dollop of cream. She'd fallen into a routine over the past week. Coffeeregardless of what time of day she woke upa quick breakfast of cereal and milk followed by a protein shake, then several hours in the barn sanding the old oak furniture she'd found there. Not that she knew anything about refinishing furniture, but she had instructions she'd printed off the internet and time on her hands.
Too much time. But dwelling on it made her feel even more like the prisoner she essentially was, which in turn made her determined to fill the hours so she wouldn't feel like a prisoner. Eddie had destroyed her looks and her livelihood, all because she wouldn't give him something she didn't have, something that probably no longer even existed. She wasn't going to let him destroy what was left of her life. She would hang on to what she had and make what she could of it. Then maybe, once the bastard was caught, she could slip back into the mainstream. Rejoin the land of the living.
But first he had to be caught.