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Brie Valenzuela finished her large latte and looked into the empty cup. She'd been waiting in this coffee shop for over an hour, trying to look engrossed in her newspaper, but as the time ticked by, she only grew more concerned. The man she was meeting was a witness to a murder and needed a place to hide out. She'd be hooking him up with a place to stay and a job in Virgin River as a favor to one of her colleagues from the Sacramento District Attorney's office, and when a witness was late in meeting his contact, there was reason to be concerned.
Brie wanted to make a phone call to Sacramento but didn't want to alarm anyone. Instead, she asked the barista for another latte.
This witness, now known as Conner Danson, had seen a very well-known, high-profile Sacramento businessman shoot another man. Danson had been taking trash out behind his hardware store when it had happened and had seen everything. He'd called the police and become the sole witness to the crime. Thanks to his prompt report, they'd found evidence of blood in the man's car, though it had been cleaned, but no weapon.
DNA tests had proved the blood belonged to the victim. But, shortly after an arrest had been made, Danson's hardware store had burned to the ground, and a threat had been left on his home phone voice mail: You stayed out of the heat this time, but you won't slip by us again.
Clearly the suspect, Regis Mathis, a very distinguished pillar of the community, was "connected."
Brie had served as an Assistant District Attorney with Max, officially Ray Maxwell, some years ago. Max was now the D.A. He'd suspected some trouble with other witnesses' anonymity and wasn't sure whether the leak was in his office or the Federal Marshal's unit. A cautious man, he'd set up his own program. He wasn't about to take any chances on losing the only witness to a highprofile murder. Virgin River was an excellent option.
It was another twenty minutes before the door opened and a man entered, but her first thought was that he couldn't possibly be her witness. First of all, he was too young to own a prosperous hardware store that catered to custom buildersthis guy was no more than thirty-five. And he was, for lack of a more refined description, hot. At about six-two, he was built like a warhorse, his muscles popping into prominence beneath the white T-shirt under his opened leather jacket. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, low-slung jeans, long legs. Although he wore a very unhappy expression at the moment, his face was perfectly symmetricalsquare jaw, straight nose, thick brows and deep, dark blue eyes. He sported a very handsome, sculptured and tightly trimmed mustache and goatee.
He lifted his chin in her direction. She stood and he walked toward her. She opened her arms. "Give me a hug, Conner. Like we're old friends. I'm Brie Valenzuela."
He complied a little reluctantly, nearly swallowing her small frame in his embrace. "Nice to meet you," he said quietly.
"Sit down. I'll get you a coffee. What's your pleasure?"
"Just plain old coffee. Black."
"Got it." She went to the counter, ordered, collected the coffee and returned. "So," she said. "We're about the same age. We could pass for friends from college."
"I didn't really go to college," he said. "One semester."
"That works. How old are you?"
"Aren't you kind of young to own a successful business?"
"Used to own," he said, his expression darkening. "It was my father's. He died a dozen years ago but I was raised in that store. I took over."
"I see," she said. "So, we're friends from college. You're up here looking for something a little different after the builder you worked for in Colorado Springs shut downthere's a complete script of your history in this envelope, though I'm sure Max went over all of it with you."
He gave a nod. "And gave me my new ID. I picked up the truck this morning in Vacaville."
"I reserved you a small cabin. Very small, but comfortable. It's going to be temporary, and that's fine to say to people. And a friend of mine, Paul Haggerty, is a builder. He'll give you a jobhe can keep you on through summer if necessary. It's his busy building season. That gives you six months, but you won't need that much time. I hope."
"Who knows about me?" he asked her.
"My husband, Mike, and I. And you want Mike to know. He's not just a small-town cop, he's a very experienced LAPD detective. Otherwise, you're completely anonymous. Look, I'm sorry you have to go through this, but on behalf of the state, thank you for agreeing to testify."
"Lady, don't thank me. I am out of choices," he said. "And don't stand anywhere near me in a thunderstorm because I am a magnet for lightning at this point. My life has gone straight to hell in the past year."
Brie frowned. "Don't call me lady," she said. "My name is Brie and I'm helping you. Show some gratitude. You're not the only person alive to have some bad luck. I've had my share. Now, I have a new cell phone for you. Here's the number. We gave your sister a new cell phone, as well. The area code for both phones is Colorado Springs and the D.A.'s office is picking up the tab. You won't get reception in the mountains, forests or town of Virgin River, but while you're out on construction jobs in clear areas or around here, in Fortuna, you'll have reception. And," she said, sliding him the large envelope, "directions to the Riordan cabins and to Paul Haggerty's office. Also, directions to a little bar and grill in Virgin Rivergood food. Do not get drunk and spill your guts or you'll probably just be moving again. If you live that long."
"I don't get drunk."
"More's the mercy," she muttered. "If you need anything, call me at this number. Do not call the D.A. He'll contact you through me. This is serious, Conner. You don't have any options. Whether you agree to testify or not, the man you witnessed committing murder obviously has the means to have you taken out. The authorities have always suspected he's that kind of man, even though he appears on the surface to be quite upstanding."
"Understand something," he said to Brie. "If it weren't for my sister and nephews, I might just go up against him because A, I'm that kind of man, and B, I'm a little past caring."
"Katie could be collateral damage, just being related. Remember, when you speak with your sister, no clues about where you are. Don't discuss the time zone or weather or landmarks, like redwood groves. There's no point in taking chances. Let's get through this whole.
He lifted his coffee cup in a silent toast. "Yeah."
"Get settled into your cabin. Go see Paul and get your job. When you're comfortable, I'll have you to dinner. Maybe talking with Mike will settle your nerves a little."
"If you had any idea what the past year has been like
She put her hand over his in what might appear as a gesture of friendship to the casual observer, but her voice was firm. "I'm sure it's been hell. Can I just remind you that this is a favor for an old friend? I'm sticking my neck out for the D.A. because he's a good man and I owe him. We have a mission here. You're a friend from college, so go the extra mile and try to be pleasant. I don't need my brother and my close friends wondering why the hell I'd find you a place to live and a job because you're such an ass! So"
"Brother?" he asked.
"Yes. I was an A.D.A. in Sacramento, but now I'm freelance up here and I have a husband and a little girl. I came up here to hide out while I was getting ready to testify against a rapist. I stayed after the trial."
He swallowed audibly. "Rapist, huh? Who'd he rape?"
"Me," she said. "First he beat the convictionI was the prosecutor. Then he raped and tried to kill me. So, you can assume I understand some of what you're going through."
He was quiet for a long moment. He had been the primary support for his sister and nephews for a few years now. He couldn't help but wonder how he'd feel if Katie had gone through something like that. It turned his stomach. Finally he swallowed thickly and asked, "Did you get him?"
"Life sentence, no parole."
"Good for you."
"This goatee," she asked, running her fingers over her own upper lip and chin. "Is it new?"
"A slight change was suggested," he said.
"I see. Well, I understand you're going to need some time to adjust. Give me a call if you get antsy, but for right nowtry to enjoy the area. It's incredibly beautiful. A man could do worse."
"Sure," he said. "And, I'm sorry you had to go through what you had to go through, you know?"
"It was awful. And behind me now, as this will soon be behind you. You can get a fresh start. Um, Conner? You're not a bad-looking guy, but this wouldn't be a good time to hook up, if you get my drift."
"Not a problem," he said. "Not looking to hook up."
"Good. I guess," she said, standing. "Hug me like an old friend."
He opened his arms. "Thanks," he said roughly.
Conner followed the directions to Virgin River. Conner Danson had formerly been Danson Conner, owner of Conner's Hardware, so the name change had been merely a reversal, which was a little easier to get used to than an entirely new one. Danson was an old family namesome ancient great-grandfather. His parents, sister, nephews and ex-wife had always called him Danny. But at work he had been called Conner or sometimes Con or even Connie by quite a few. It wasn't difficult to remember to respond to the new name. He was tall, had brown hair, blue eyes, a small scar over his right eye, one slightly crooked tooth and a dimple on his left cheek.
The past five years had been a challenge and the past year, a nightmare.
Conner and his sister, Katie, had inherited their father's businessConner's Custom Carpentry and Hardware. Construction work and running a hardware store was no walk in the park, it was very physical. His muscles had been hard-earned. They'd outsourced custom kitchen and bathroom jobs to builders and sold commercial hardware, cabinetry, fixtures, accessories and lumber used by contractors. Conner had managed it fulltime with about ten employees and Katie had done the books, mostly from home so she could take care of her twin boys. Their merchandise had been highend; the business had done well.
When Conner had been thirty, Katie's army husband had been killed in action in Afghanistanshe had been twenty-seven, pregnant and ready to give birth. At that point, Conner had had to take over their support. They couldn't sell the family businesstheir source of income would have dissipated in no time. And Katie couldn't contribute enough time to the family business to draw an adequate salary for herself and her sons. SoCon-ner had worked a little more than full-time, Katie had worked part-time and Conner had picked up the slack so Katie and the boys could live in their own home, independent.
Those days had been long, the work demanding. Many days had ended with Conner feeling as if he'd been married to a store, and while he loved his family, he hadn't had a life. Still, hard work never bothered him, and he'd remained good-natured and quick-witted. His customers and employees had enjoyed his laugh, his positive attitude. But he had needed something more.
And then he'd found the perfect womanSamantha. Beautiful, funny and sexy Sam with the long, black hair and hypnotizing smile. And God, going to bed with her had just wound his clock! She was a whiz of an interior decorator who had helped Katie slap her little three bedroom into a showplace in nothing flat. She'd wanted him constantly. Loved sex.
Little had he known.
One year of marriage later and he'd found out she was cheatingand not with a guy, but with every guy she met.
"She's sick," Katie had said. "It's not even like she's unfaithful, she's a sex addict."
"I don't believe in sex addicts," Conner had said.
"She needs help," Katie had said.
"I wish her luck with that," he had replied.
Of course they divorced. He ended up paying for an expensive treatment program, but escaped alimony. He hadn't recovered from that before things got worse.
All he'd been doing was taking trash out to the Dumpster in the alley behind the store. A man in a black town car had gotten out, walked around to the passenger side, opened the door and put a bullet in the head of his passenger. Conner had crouched behind the Dumpster while the man, whom he'd unfortunately gotten a very good look at, had pulled out the victim's body and used Conner's Dumpster as the coffin. Then he'd calmly gotten back in his fancy car and driven out of the dark alley.
This was the point at which Conner would have done a few things differently, because he had seen the man and the license plate and the dead body. It would have probably been a lot easier all around if he'd pretended he hadn't seen a thing, but calling the police was an automatic response for him. Unfortunately, Conner's name had appeared on the warrantit was how the police had been able to get it signed by a judge. Within a couple of days someone had burned the hardware store to the ground.
At that point, even the decision not to testify would have come too late. Mr. Regis Mathis was a very important man in Sacramento. He endowed Catholic charities and supported high-profile politicians. Of course, he'd been investigated a few times by the feds for tax evasion and had a reputation for professional gamblingvery successful legal gamblingbut he was also a successful developer who sold golf course condo lots. He had never been indicted.
His victim, who had been found with his hands and ankles bound by duct tape, a strip across his mouth as well, had been his oppositeDickie Randolph had been a low-class thug who'd owned a number of questionable establishments like massage parlors, strip clubs and adult clubs, all with the reputation of illegal drug use, prostitution and sex play. The two men had had nothing in common but there'd been hints of associationsilent partner association that would be difficult to impossible to prove.
Immediately following the phone threat, Conner and the D.A., Max, had packed Katie and the boys off to Burlington, Vermont. Max knew of a friend of a friend's small rental house there and the same friend had hooked them up with a pediatric dentist who'd been looking for an accountant. Katie would be comfortable, independent and far, far away.