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Erin Cole shivered away an uneasy feeling as she unlocked the door of Millie's Provisions and stepped into her new life. The cold. Surely it was only the cold that raised goose bumps on her arms and sent an eerie premonition racing through her mind.
A silly, city-girl reaction to the loneliness of the mountains after being away for so long.
Nothing ever happened in Lost Falls, so there was no reason to be afraid. The peaceful little village, with its few dozen touristy businesses trailing along the shore of Bear Island Lake, swelled with vacationers and bumper-to-propeller traffic during the summer, then slept quietly with only a handful of year-round residents to brave the long winters.
She'd come back to put old ghosts to rest once and for all. She was past all that, and didn't plan to give in to the old fears that had dogged her for so many years.
Inside the little general store, the crisp scent of northern Montana pine and the gentle sound of waves sloshing along the shore of Bear Island Lake gave way to the faint smells of leather and cinnamon and the steady tick of the old Coca Cola clock above the cash register.
It all brought back a rush of sepia-toned images from a childhood spent at this lake. Of all the times she and her cousins Laura and Megan, and their best friend, Kris, had sat on the wooden steps just outside, licking melting ice-cream cones as they decided on their next adventure. They'd been inseparable, back then.
The good memories helped settle her nerves. The bad ones she still tried to forget.
Owned by her grandparents, Millie's had always reminded her of a magician's hat. Small as it was, it still held everything from bait to books, from groceries to camping gear and tourist supplies.
Her favorite part had always been the little café set up in the front window, with six wrought-iron, icecream tables and an old-fashioned soda fountain complete with eight brass stools that could spin.
And now, this place was her future. Who would've thought? Brimming with emotion, she locked the door behind her and started across the pine-planked floor.
A shadow moved across a beam of moonlight at the back of the store.
She froze, the nape of her neck prickling.
The ticking of the clock slowed.
The glass-fronted pop-and-beer-cooler compressor hummed louder as she strained to listen. A sixth sense told her that the shadow had not been her imagination.
Holding her breath, she edged backward toward the front door, her heart pounding against her ribs and her palms damp.
Ten feet to go.
She reached blindly behind her for the dead bolt, not daring to turn around.
Had the intruder heard her come in? How fast could she escape? But what then?
The surrounding campgrounds and rustic cabin resorts were empty, now that the tourist season was over. The closest year-round business was a sporting-goods store at least a half mile away that wouldn't open until midmorning.
And with her bad ankle, the chances of outrunning anyone over the age of six weren't good. GodI need some help here.
From the back room came the sound of something scraping against the floor and was that the rasp of a harsh, indrawn breath?
Fear washed through her, turning her knees weak, as she fumbled with her car keys.
The back door squeaked.
Closed with a soft snick of the latch.
Which meant the intruder had left. Or did it? If she ran to her car, he could be out there. Waiting.
But if he was still inside, lying in wait for her, it could be hours before anyone noticed signs of a struggle.
Even if some early morning coffee drinkers peered through the front window, they wouldn't be able to see the back of the store. And no one would even think to stop by until the store opened at seven, anyway.
Tell me what to do, Lordgo, or stay?
Her gaze fell on the old-fashioned desk telephone on the counter behind the cash register, then to the locked cabinet beneath, where she'd stored her grandfather's Korean War-era pistol.
A sense of calm settled over her.
The old keepsake had been like a security blanket, given the iffy Denver neighborhood she'd lived in before sharing a condo with her friend Ashley, but she'd only brought it to this sleepy little town as a memento.
She crept to the register. Quietly she snagged the phone and pulled it down into her lap to dial 911. While whispering to the operator, she fingered through her ring of keys to unlock the cupboard and retrieve the gun.
And then, she moved into the shadows behind a display of fishing tackle and began to pray.
* * *
For the past three months Jack Matthews had slept fitfully at best. He'd greeted the dawn bleary-eyed too many times to count.
But last night he must have finally fallen asleep, because when Max screamed just before dawn, he'd launched out of bed and spun around, disoriented, sure this scream was just one of the many that filled his nightmares.
Then Max had cried out again.
Jack's brain cleared, and he'd stumbled down the dark, unfamiliar hall to the other bedroom of the rental house, where his five-year-old nephew was sitting bolt upright in bed, the blankets twisted around him, his eyes wide and frightened and streaming tears.
No wonder, given the crimson wash of patrol-car lights spinning across his bedroom walls and the male voices drifting up from the road.
Despite Jack's best efforts at trying to comfort him, Max had been awake since then, shell-shocked and subdued after his sobs finally subsided.
It had been a long trip up here from Lawrence, Texas, with too little sleep and three days on the road. Especially while he was still trying to learn how to be a daddy to an emotionally damaged child, who often withdrew from the gentlest hug.
A child who'd rarely smiled since the night he'd watched his parents die.
If he'd still been on speaking terms with God, Jack would have been praying. But if God hadn't chosen to spare the lives of two of the sweetest, kindest people on the planet, why would He care about their grieving, traumatized son?
By all rights Jack, not Janie and her husband, Allen, should've been driving his vintage Mercedes to the gala fundraiser in downtown Dallas.
And it should've been Jack lying in that pretty little cemetery up in the foothills.
Shelving his melancholy thoughts, Jack wearily settled across the kitchen table from Max with a strong cup of coffee in his hand and smiled. "More Cheerios?"
The little boy pushed a piece of cereal across the lake of milk in his bowl, then poked it with the spoon and shook his head.
"I thought you liked Cheerios."
Could a five-year-old live on three bites of cereal and one nibble of toast? Despite coaxing and attempts at bribery, he'd only accepted Cheerios and cheeseburgers since they'd left Texas, and even then he'd only take a few bites.
Evidence of just how wrong a choice Jack was for the child's guardian, but there was no one else left and certainly no one else who loved him more.
"If you aren't hungry, let's go next door to meet our landlord."
Darting an uneasy, sideways glance at him, Max slid off his chair and focused on the buttons of his Sponge Bob pajamas.
"We'll look for something interesting in the store. Some new storybooks, maybe?"
With an almost imperceptible nod, the little boy shied away from the offer of Jack's hand, but dutifully pulled on his clothes and followed him out onto the broad front porch, down the flagstone walk to the road and over to the rustic, one-and-a-half-story log building next door. Millie's Provisions appeared to be a small general store, and the aroma of fresh-baked rolls wafted through the front screen door.
Incredible rolls, from the rich caramel-and-cinnamon scent of them.
Seeing the guarded, hopeful look Max darted at him, Jack felt his heart lift. If it took caramel rolls to see the worry and fear ease in the little boy's eyes, they'd be here with bells on every single day.
"Are you hungry now?" he teased, waggling one eyebrowa move that had once made the child giggle.
Max regarded him with somber eyes, but he did start up the broad wooden steps to the covered boardwalk running across the front of the building. The effect was straight out of a 1940s Western movie, with pine benches and wooden rockers lining the full length of the storefront, perfect for old folks to gather.
But instead of Montana-cowboy memorabilia, crossed fishing poles had been hammered to the outside wall, along with an immense fish carved out of wood.
Max stared at the gaping jaws of the fish and stumbled backward, reaching for Jack's hand. "He's big."
"That's Edgar." The soft, sympathetic voice came from inside the building. "He scared me until I started fifth grade. But he's really only a big ol' piece of wood."
Jack followed the sound of the voice to a hazy silhouette on the other side of the screen door.
A second later the woman pushed the door open and bent down to smile at Max. "Once I named him Edgar, he didn't seem so scary."
She'd appeared to be of ample size when viewed through the screen, but now he realized that she was about as substantial as Tinkerbelljust a delicate little thing, swathed in a voluminous apron.
In her late twenties or early thirties at most, with long, dark blond hair braided and pulled through the back of a red Millie's Provisions ball cap, she had a smudge of flour on one cheek.
Her light blue eyes sparkled with amusement when she looked up at Jack, and he realized he'd been staring.
"I'm Erin, the owner. I'm running behind in the kitchen, but just give a holler when you finish shopping and I'll zip over to the register."
He'd researched long-term vacation lodging on the Internet, and the place he'd found here, just a single rental house set in the mountains of western Montana, sounded perfect as a quiet getaway. He'd immediately arranged a lease on the phone.
He'd had to supply multiple referenceswhich he knew she'd verifiedand he'd had to pay two months' rent with a certified check before she agreed to a three-month lease and mailed him a key.
Given all that, he'd guessed that his temporary landlady would be tough to deal with should anything go awry, but now his preconceptions melted away.
Once upon a time, he might have felt an instant flash of attraction. He might have even flirted a little, just to see where things led.
But not anymore.
Romance and the responsibilities of single parentingespecially in his casewere mutually exclusive. His ex-fiancée's resentment and abrupt defection after Max's arrival into his life had made that crystal clear.
Worse, Max had inadvertently overheard part of Elana's declaration about not wanting to raise someone else's child. He'd become even more withdrawn after that, and Jack would never risk that kind of harm again.
He offered his hand. "I'm Jack, and this is Max, my nephew."
"I saw the lights go on at the house late last night and went out to check the license plate on your car to be sure it was you, but figured I'd wait until today to come over. And then, well, things got a little busy over here."
Her cheerful smile wavered as she dusted her hand against her apron and accepted a brief handshake, then playfully shook Max's hand, as well. "I'm so sorry I didn't make it over to greet you, too."
Surprised that the child didn't shy away from her touch, Jack nodded toward an immense calico cat curled up on a chair at the end of the porch. "Will she let Max pet her?"
Erin laughed. "Pet her. Lug her around. She came with the store and she's definitely not very energetic."
After Max headed for the cat, Jack lowered his voice. "You had some trouble over here early this morning."
The woman's cheerful facade slipped for a second before she retrieved another bright smile. "Nothing major."
This was a subject he didn't want to discuss with Max at his side, and the child could be back any second. Jack curbed his impatience. "There was a squad car parked in front of this store, with at least two officers and several onlookers. Sounds sort of major to me."
Erin bit her lower lip. "I came into the store to start baking and thought I heard an intruder leaving. I didn't actually see anyone."