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Corey Donohue tossed the odd little note aside as she went to answer the doorbell.
I remember you but you don't remember me.
Exactly, she thought, the kind of joke she would expect one of her friends to play. They believed she was entirely too busy keeping up with the sewing shop she had taken over from her grandmother and thought she needed to shake up her life a bit. Well, that wasn't going to do it.
She hesitated, though, for just a second, looking back at the hall table where she had thrown the piece of note-paper. Anonymous envelope, typed Wouldn't one of her friends have scrawled something like that with a pen?
But then she pushed the momentary uneasiness aside and reached for the doorknob. Whatever it was, it sounded teasing, not threatening. She supposed some old friend would finally call her to give her a hard time.
She was surprised to find the Conard County sheriff, Gage Dalton, standing there with another, younger man. The guy looked as if he'd just crossed the metaphorical train tracks from the wrong side-shaggy black hair, unshaven, wearing leather and denim, with dark eyes that looked like chips of coal. With bronzed skin and high cheekbones, he looked at once exotic and dangerous.
"Corey," Gage said, "meet a colleague of mine, Austin Mendez."
Austin nodded. She nodded back, wondering what was going on here. Strange men made her jumpy, and if Gage hadn't been there, she would have slammed the door.
"Austin's just come off an undercover assignment and he needs a place to decompress. I remembered your last roomer moved out, and while I know this won't be the long-term kind of thing you'd prefer, Austin needs a room for at least a month, maybe more."
Corey didn't at all like the looks of Austin. He was the kind a very young woman would find appealing, with his unkempt aura of danger, but she was long past that stage. She was also blunt. She turned to Gage. "You vouching for him?"
"Absolutely. He's law enforcement."
She wondered how much that really meant when dealing with a man who had been undercover. Someone had once remarked that the difference between a criminal and an undercover agent was that the agent had to lie.
She looked at Austin Mendez again. A man. In her house. But she felt the pressure of doing a favor for Gage, who had always been good to her. She couldn't just refuse. Gathering her courage, she said, "You get the whole upstairs. It's furnished. You can use the kitchen. I don't make meals for tenants because I'm usually at work. You can go on up and take a look, if you like."
It wasn't the friendliest she'd ever been to a tenant, but she didn't want to be friendly. She was accustomed to renting the space to women, one of the teachers, college students or nurses in the area. The last had been a student at the junior college, a truly nice young woman who had moved on to a four-year school. The fall semester had just begun, and she didn't have a replacement roomer yet. At this point, she probably wouldn't until the spring semester.
This was certainly going to be different, she thought as she watched Austin hike up the stairs.
She gave her attention back to Gage. "I just got home and made some coffee. Do you have time?"
He glanced at his watch. "Sure. Emma's working late tonight and the boys are thrilled to be ordering pizza. I'm a free man for a little while."
Which she took to mean that he wanted to give her a chance to get comfortable with the new tenant. She appreciated that and finally gave him a smile. "Kitchen or living room?" she asked.
"Kitchen's fine. We do everything in the kitchen at my place. I can't figure out why we even have a living room most of the time. These days the boys don't even watch TV. I can't pry them off their computer games."
She laughed. "If I had more time I'd probably get addicted to that myself."
The strange little note fluttered as they passed. She reached for it, intending to toss it in the trash, but then, on impulse, she tucked it, along with its envelope, in one of the drawers of the hall table.
As she poured them coffee, she looked up at the ceiling. "I guess I'm going to have to get used to heavy footsteps."
"That last tenant you had was a tiny sprite," he agreed.
"Just a few months, you said? Because I'm probably going to have students wanting to rent for the next semester."
"He just needs a little time and quiet. You pretend you're somebody else for a half-dozen years, and then you have to find yourself again."
"Was it like that for you?"
"Sometimes, but I didn't go anywhere near as deep. Austin doesn't have anybody just now. He went way deep from what I understand, and it leaves you a bit messed up. You also can't just pick up old relationships, not for a while. It could be dangerous if you get identified. But I don't know much I can tell you. Or even how much I know. Just rest assured that I wouldn't have brought him here if I hadn't vetted him."
She supposed that would have to do. Sharing a house with a man made her feel uneasy, though, and she questioned whether she should really agree to this. But she had already invited Austin to look around. Could she possibly look at Gage now and tell him she had changed her mind?
"He's DEA?" she asked.
"He's a friend of a friend," Gage answered. "I don't know which agency. I just know that apparently he spent a lot of time in the border towns in Mexico."
She blinked. While she wasn't up on all the details, she'd heard how dangerous it could be for undercover agents. "My God!"
"And I don't know whether he was involved in trying to stem the drug trade or the arms trade, but I guess it doesn't matter. Two sides of the same coin."
She looked up as she heard more footsteps. "That must have been hell."
"Life on a tightrope, for sure. Anyway, he shouldn't give you any problems, but if you have any, just call me. I'll make other arrangements."
She nodded, feeling a trickle of relief. "I've never taken a man as a roomer before." For good reason. While she couldn't remember her mother's murder, she had had a problem with men ever since, especially men she didn't know.
She returned her attention to Gage. "I take it you're doing a favor for this friend?"
"Sorta. I just suggested it would be hard to get a bigger change of pace. We're mostly quiet and peaceful and don't have the kind of triggers that could set him off."
"You would know. What do you mean, set him off?" She didn't like that phrase.
"Nothing violent. Just that there isn't much around here that ought to make him edgy. He should be able to start letting his guard down and maybe even take a few steps toward remembering who he used to be."
She shook her head and looked down. "If there's one thing I know, it's that you can never be who you used to be. Somehow you have to try to stitch all the changes into a new you."
Gage fell silent and drank his coffee. Corey supposed he was the last person on earth she'd needed to say that to. After all, this man had lost his entire family, a wife and two kids, to a bomb intended for him. Somehow he'd put himself together, remarried and built a family and a life here.
She wasn't sure she'd really finished stitching herself together. Nor was she sure that traumatic amnesia had helped with that one bit. The doctors said it was okay to forget, but she didn't always believe it. Yet it remained a horror she didn't want to look at.
Heavy footsteps on the stairs.
"We're in here," Gage called.
Austin Mendez appeared in the door and hesitated.
"Coffee?" Corey asked, determined to be polite no matter how uneasy he made her.
She motioned him to a chair at the dinette and got him a cup. "Milk? Sugar?"
"Black's fine, thanks. That's a nice space you have up there."
Corey brought him his coffee and sat again, across from him and Gage. Somehow she was going to have to get used to this, at least for a few months. She decided to try to be chatty.
"Part of that has to do with my tenants over the years. They've fixed it up in various ways to suit them, from painting the rooms, to furnishings. When they move on, they leave a nicer place behind."
"I'm not sure I can do that, but I appreciate it."
He looked as if he was making an effort and it didn't come easily. South of the border? She'd bet he was more comfortable with Spanish than English right now. Unfortunately, her Spanish was more like Spanglish. But maybe that's the last thing he needed to hear now, fluent or not. How would she know?
He spoke again. His English was slightly accented, as if he'd picked up a new habit. Or maybe it was an old one. The longer she sat here, the more questions she had about him. "Gage told me the rent, Ms. Donohue. I'd like to pay a little more."
"Why should you do that?"
"Because Gage also told me you prefer to rent to women. I feel you're doing me a favor."
She blinked, then looked at Gage. "And what else did you tell Mr. Mendez about me?"
Gage smiled into his coffee cup. "Not much. I just told him that in case you said no. I didn't want Austin to take it personally."
That made sense, she supposed. She returned her attention to the male question mark beside Gage. "It's true, but making an exception isn't a favor. Just the regular rent, please." Maybe it wasn't a favor or maybe it was. But it certainly wasn't a favor to Austin. She owed Gage.
Austin Mendez nodded. "Okay. So what are the house rules?"
She hadn't really thought about that because she hadn't exactly needed to make rules before. "Buy your own food, clean up after yourself. That's all I ask. I'll give you a key so you can come and go as you like. I'm gone most days all day, so we shouldn't bother each other."
He nodded. "Fair enough. And I'm not looking to throw any parties."
"I've survived even a few of those," she remarked.
She was almost grateful when he smiled faintly. Not much of a smile, but she was beginning to get the feeling that whoever this man was, or had been, right now he was very much on edge and uncertain. Since she couldn't imagine him doing what he had done without at least a fair amount of confidence, it must be the total shift in gears that was bothering him.
Well, she could understand that. She'd spent a lot of her life trying to shift a gear that seemed to be stuck.
She also couldn't think of another thing to say. She'd never been one for small talk with strangers. So she looked at Gage. "How are the kids? I know how Emma is, I see her often."
"Ever since you got her into that quilting," he agreed, his eyes twinkling a bit. "Are there ever too many quilts?"
"Never." She laughed.
Gage turned to Austin. "Corey here owns the local sewing shop and gives classes in how to do all kinds of stuff from knitting to needlepoint to quilting. Emma's even talking about learning to make lace, though whatever for I can't imagine."
"There's something soothing about busy hands," Corey answered. "And when you get done, there's a sense of achievement."
"There's also a lot of kids in this town running around with hand-knitted caps and a lot of beds covered by Emma's quilts." His eyes danced. "It's kind of fun to watch her give one away. People are so overwhelmed by it and go on about how she couldn't possibly want to part with so much work. They should only see the stack in one corner of our bedroom."
At that, Corey laughed outright. "She did really get into it."
"Understatement," Gage pronounced. "You unleashed an obsession." He glanced at his watch again. "I gotta run. I know the boys are old enough to be by themselves, but every so often I still have to unplug them from their games and remind them there's a real world out here."
"Is there?" Austin's question fell into the conversation almost like a bomb. As if he realized it, he shook himself visibly. "Sorry." He stood up. "I need to go to the bank and get your rent. No checking account yet. If I could have that key?"
She rose immediately and went to get it for him. He thanked her and vanished out the front door and into the gloaming.
Gage stood in the kitchen. "Are you going to be okay with this?"
"You seemed to think I would be."
"That's no answer." He sighed. "I swear he's on the up-and-up. And if you want my guess, you'll hardly know he's here. But if you have any doubts, I'll find another way."
She hesitated. Part of her definitely wanted to say no. Since her mother's murder, she had trouble trusting men, especially strangers, even though she couldn't remember a thing about what had happened. Still She thought of what Gage had told her about Austin Mendez and figured he'd earned some help with his return to regular life. Someone owed it to him, and she seemed to be the someone available right now.
"It'll be okay," she said firmly.
"But if it's not, let me know?"
He seemed content with that and took his departure after thanking her for the coffee. It was Saturday night, the classes at her shop were done for the day, and tomorrow she'd be open for only a few hours.
That suddenly seemed like an awfully long time away, before she walked back into the security of the shop her grandmother had left to her. She'd just pretended to a whole lot of confidence she didn't feel at all. But that pretense was embedded in her life.
She decided there was only one way to survive this evening. She grabbed a sandwich and a glass of milk, along with her e-reader and knitting bag, and headed for her bedroom. Once inside, she locked the door.
There would be a man in the house now, and she was not at all happy about it or comfortable with it.