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Darkness fell early on cold winter nights in Conard County, Wyoming. Allison pulled into her driveway, feeling the weight of the frigid night air even inside the warmth of her SUV. She sat for a bit, reluctant to get out, to once again feel the sting of icy air in her nostrils and lungs.
It was a silly reaction. After all, she'd grown up around here, the winters rarely held any surprises, and the cold was the least of them. But for the moment she decided to enjoy the blast of heat from her car vents before dashing up to her door and stepping into a house that would be even colder than the car.
She believed in conservation and saving energy. During the days when she was at work, her computerized thermostat turned the temperature down to sixty. Right now it would be pushing the house toward sixty-eight, but wouldn't have quite made it yet, given how cold it was today. Later, at bedtime, it would turn down again until morning.
Which meant she wore a lot of fleece indoors, and thick mohair socks, and even had a heavy blanket to wrap herself in for sitting around and reading in the evenings. Plus, the house itself, being older, managed to remain drafty no matter what she did with weather stripping and insulation.
She needed new double-paned windows, but those were far beyond her budget right now. Instead, she had to settle on insulated curtains, and while they helped, they didn't quite stop the drafts.
And this was ridiculous, she told herself. Burning gas with her car needlessly just to avoid going inside and wrapping herself in layers of warm clothing. Wasteful. Bad for the environment.
Nearly giggling at herself, she flipped off the ignition and sat listening to the engine tick as it cooled down. Man, it wasn't like this was Antarctica or anything, and the trip to her front door wasn't that far. What had gotten into her?
Just as she reached for the door handle, a truck pulled into the driveway next door, not six feet away from her. Her new neighbor, a man she had barely glimpsed in the two weeks since he'd moved in, apparently kept so much to himself that the only gossip about him so far was that he kept to himself.
A strange thing around here.
Well, she thought, this was her opportunity to at least say hi. Climbing out quickly, watching her breath blow frosty clouds in the muted light from his truck and a streetlamp three houses down, she looked up and waited.
For a minute she wondered if he was waiting inside his truck to avoid her. Cold began to snake its way into the neck of her jacket, and she moved her purse strap so she could pull up her hood.
At last he climbed out. Tall. Lean, even in his layers of winter clothing. He glanced her way just briefly, and she almost caught her breath as she saw the narrow scar that slashed his cheek. He had just started to move toward his own door when she called out.
"Howdy," she said cheerfully. "About time we met. Welcome to town, neighbor. I'm Allison McMann."
He froze, still mostly turned away from her. The hesitation was perceptible, and she began to wonder if he was going to say anything at all.
"Hi," he said shortly, then trekked toward his door without another word.
Okay, Allison thought. Have it your way. Turning, she hurried up her steps, slipping on ice she thought she'd gotten rid of. Then, like some crazy cartoon, she cartwheeled backward. All of a sudden she was lying on her back, staring up at the starry night sky, her laptop case and backpack in the snow, her purse wrapped across her chest.
"Well, dang," she said to the stars. She never did this. That would teach her to hurry.
"Are you okay?"
Just as unexpectedly as she had fallen, Mr. Inscrutable was squatting beside her, looking down at her. Even in the lousy light she could see chiseled features and dark eyes. He had bone structure an actor would kill for.
"I think I'm fine," she said. "Well, except for my pride. Despite evidence to the contrary, I almost never fall."
"So you're a mountain goat?"
Was that humor? She looked at his face but found it as unreadable as everything else about him.
"Not exactly." She started to push herself up, but his hand on her shoulder stayed her.
"Take it slowly. You can't always tell, and it sounded to me like you hit pretty hard on the pavement."
"Yeah. Pavement I salted just last night so I wouldn't slip and fall. Go figure."
"Must have missed a spot."
She pushed up again and was grateful that this time he didn't try to stop her. In fact, he didn't offer unnecessary assistance, either. He just remained there, watching.
When she was sitting upright, she wiggled her shoulders and untangled her purse. "I'm okay," she repeated.
"Not a bit."
"Okay, then." He stood, grabbed her hands without asking and pulled her to her feet. He dropped her gloved hands as fast as he had seized them, and stepped back. He watched her almost clinically for a few seconds, nodded to himself then bent and retrieved her laptop and backpack.
"There you go," he said, passing them to her. Before she could thank him, he was trotting toward his door again, as if he couldn't get away from her fast enough.
"Thank you," she called after him. She didn't even get a grunt in return.
Realizing she was getting colder by the second, she headed for her own door, more cautiously this time. No more pratfalls, she warned herself. Especially not in front of that guy. He seemed almost as cold as the winter night.
Thanks to her longer-than-intended sojourn outside, the house didn't feel quite as cold as usual. Checking the thermostat, she saw the temperature had already reached sixty-six. Stripping her outerwear and hanging it on pegs by the door, she headed to her bedroom in the back for what she thought of as her "grungies," old, comfortable sweats and socks and a sweater if necessary. She'd warm up making her dinner, then settle in with grading the latest chemistry test.
In the kitchen, she flipped on the small TV to listen to the weather while she cooked. This cold wave was extreme for this early in the winter, arriving more than a month sooner than usual. Tomorrow she had fieldwork to do and figured unless something happened overnight, she would have to dig out the snowmobile suit she kept for the coldest days of the year. She never went snow-mobiling, but the one-piece suit had other uses, including protection from the wind.
This damn job was going to be tough enough as it was. A rancher had recently lost two cows to a deadly toxin, one that had been outlawed years ago and had the ability to spread far and fast with little control. The state had asked her to take some soil and water samples to try to identify the affected areas. Given the toxicity of the chemical identified in the dead cows, this was going to be dangerous.
Still, it had to be done, and she'd just have to be careful, wearing protective gloves and booties over her winter gear. All of which was going to make collecting the samples awkward, but there it was. This compound had to be tracked and the source cleaned up as swiftly as possible. The spring thaw would only make things worse.
With these thoughts running in her mind, she broiled a chicken breast and tossed a small salad. Inevitably, though, her mind returned to the stranger next door. He'd been quick to help when she had fallen, but was otherwise utterly unfriendly. She hadn't even learned his name.
His face suggested he might be a hunk, but the scar on his cheek looked as if he'd been slashed with a knife. He might also be bad news. He could be hiding out from the law for all she knew, although with a face as memorable as that, he wouldn't be able to hide for long.
The lights had been turned on next door two weeks ago, so she assumed that was when he moved in. In all that time, tonight was the first glimpse she'd had of him, although his truck seemed to be gone an awful lot, so he was doing something with his days.
But given this town's penchant for gossip, people had been amazingly quiet about this guy. They noted he'd moved in, but nobody knew a thing about him. If he had a job somewhere, someone would have mentioned it.
He was well out of the norm in a number of ways, and it made her curious as hell. None of her business, of course, but it was impossible not to think of the lines she'd heard in so many horrible news stories: He kept to himself. He was a loner.
She giggled at the direction her imagination had taken and poured coffee to take into her home office with her while she graded those tests.
Despite all the technological advances, giving an inclass test meant that she had to pore over chicken scratchings. In a couple of hours, she would feel nearly blind and probably have a splitting headache. Such was the price of teaching Chemistry I and II at a community college. A small price overall, she decided, as she picked up the first test.
She liked her job. And she had to stop wondering about the stranger next door.
* * *
Little more than thirty feet away, the stranger next door stood in his unlit back room and stared out an uncurtained window. Agitation crawled across his nerve endings, and he faced that fact that not even six months had been enough to ease the constant pressure and stress he lived with. It was as if his mind and body had simply forgotten how to relax.
He'd moved here for the wide-open spaces and the clear sight lines. A strange way to pick a town. Well, that and the fact that he knew Seth Hardin a bit and Hardin had always spoken well of this place. But he hadn't even let Hardin know he was here, although he heard the guy was currently on station with his fiancée somewhere out there. No point in introducing himself to Hardin's family hereabouts. He might not stay long.
He might not be able to stay long. Questions about his past simply couldn't be answered. His whole adult life was stamped "classified," and it was hard to talk around those things without inadvertently giving something away.
He had his cover story, but it didn't fit him somehow. He'd rather say nothing than lie needlessly, anyway. It was beginning to strike him that all he'd done was exchange one covert life for another. How did you build on that? He had six months of public history and a childhood. The rest was best forgotten.
Hell, maybe they should have filed him in the warehouse with all his mission debriefings.
The thought amused him, but not for long. Something about that encounter with his neighbor earlier had seemed to cast his current existence in high relief. Was he always going to live in the shadows?
It hadn't been so bad when he'd shared those shadows with the other guys in his unit, but now he shared them with no one, cut off from friends who could no longer talk to him about what they were doing, and cut off from everyone else because he couldn't say where he'd been or what he'd done.
He wasn't feeling sorry for himself. He'd made his choices. But it sure got irritating at times. Even the most casual of conversations felt like a minefield. He'd probably get used to it, though. He'd gotten used to a lot worse.
So he had some decisions to make and some learning to do. First off, he could have handled that encounter with the woman-Allison-with a minimum of common courtesy. Damn, it wasn't as if his name was classified. Would it have been so hard to say, "Nice to meet you. I'm Jerrod"?
Except that it might have been taken as an invitation to get to know him better. So he'd been rude. Not even helping her up after she'd slipped could make up for his cold response to her friendly greeting.
Time to learn to get through those simple courtesies without keeping his guard so high that he failed at the smallest aspects of daily life.
It wasn't as if he didn't know how. During his service, there had been plenty of opportunities to practice the social graces, at least to a minimal extent. Certainly the academy had drilled them into him. But then covert operations had kind of drilled them out.
Still, it was no excuse. What was going on inside him? No longer in uniform, he was feeling like some kind of sham. Because at heart he was still a long way from being a civilian.
He sighed and pressed his forehead to the icy window glass. When his career came to a close, thanks to shrapnel lodged near his spine, he hadn't dreamed that he'd feel so much like a stranger in a strange land. Or that he'd be so ill prepared for a so-called normal life.
His old normal was no longer normal, and he needed to get his act together. Traipsing around the countryside all day, every day, might ease the need for action, at least a little, but it wasn't moving him forward in any useful way.
He had a lot of years ahead of him, and he needed to do something worthwhile with them. If worse came to worse, he supposed he could return the call from the CIA, but did he really want a covert future where his ability to act would be hemmed in by pretending to be a diplomat? Was he even certain that he would do any good? At least what he'd been doing for the military- well, damn near all of it-had sure as hell seemed necessary.
The CIA was a whole different can of worms, one he wasn't sure he wanted to open. At least in his former capacity, he hadn't usually needed to lie and gain the trust of people who shouldn't trust him at all.
There it was again, that whole lie-and-trust issue. Kind of late, he thought almost bitterly, to be developing moral qualms.
Or maybe not too late. Not too late to want to do something productive rather than destructive. The only question was what would satisfy him. What did he feel equipped to do that didn't involve sniper rifles and C-4?
Maybe he just needed to take it in small steps. One little thing at a time.
He glanced at his watch and saw it was only eight o'clock, still early, although the winter had made it dark as pitch out there.
Maybe he could rectify one small rudeness. Just a small step, but a right step.
One foot in front of the other. That had gotten him through more than he cared to remember. One step at a time.