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You said you had a plunger and you knew how to use it—I just took you up on it." Neily Pratt teased Charlie, the plumber she'd known for as long as she could remember. Charlie was only one of many townsfolk in Northbridge, Montana, who had just spent their entire Sunday working on the run-down old Hobbs house, a brick mammoth at the top of the hill at one end of South Street in the heart of North-bridge proper.
The house had been deserted until a week ago when its longtime owner, Theresa Hobbs Grayson, had somehow managed to steal the car of the live-in nurse who cared for her and make her way from her current residence in Missoula to her former hometown. Once she'd reached Northbridge, she'd abandoned the car at the ice cream parlor, walked the remaining block and a half to the house and slipped in through the cellar door.
Suffering from mental illness, Theresa had spent a few days undetected before she was discovered. When local police had entered the premises, she'd run for an upstairs bedroom, locking herself in. In her disturbed state of mind, she had hysterically refused to leave either the bedroom or the residence itself, saying that she was there to get back what was taken from her. The police had been forced to call in Human Services. Which, in Northbridge, meant sole social worker Neily Pratt, who was now overseeing Theresa's welfare and, for the time being, staying with Theresa at the old Hobbs house.
Neily's brother Cam joined her on the front porch where she was saying thanks and good-night to everyone as they left.
"Are you doing okay here alone?" Cam asked as he stood beside Neily and waved to someone heading off down the hill. Cam was one of the localpolice officers, and he, too, had done what he could today to make the house more livable.
"I'm fine," Neily assured her brother, knowing he was concerned for her safety. In her line of work Neily had encountered people who could be a danger to her, but she didn't believe the sweet seventy-five-year-old woman was one of them.
"Have there been any more scenes like the night we found her?" Cam persisted.
"The only time Theresa gets really difficult is when I say anything about her leaving the house. As long as I don't mention that, she's a lamb. So for now it seems better for her and easier for everyone else if she stays here while we figure out a long-term plan."
"Well, at least the place is cleaner and there aren't any more fire hazards. And the kitchen sink is un-clogged and all the broken windows have been replaced," Cam observed.
"Thanks to you and our local Good Samaritans banding together to help me today. I especially appreciate the windows—we may be having a warm April but it still gets cold at night, and cardboard taped over gaping holes isn't a lot of help."
Neily and Cam exchanged a few final words with the electrician who came outside at that moment. Then the man went to his van parked in the driveway.
"Anyhow," Neily continued, "I haven't seen even a hint that Theresa is violent. Her mood is up and down, she's confused more than not, but she isn't a threat to anyone. I'll never understand how she made it here on her own—she must have been really determined. But now she mostly just sits silently in the rocking chair in the master bedroom."
"Like she has all day today—I never saw her."
"No one did. She didn't want to see anyone. But I didn't want her alone in the bedroom the whole day either—"
"So you hired a companion."
"Only after I promised Theresa that it wouldn't be anyone who had known her in the past. I have no idea why that was such a big deal, but it was."
Out came three more volunteers—including sixteen-year-old Missy Hart, Theresa's companion—and after another round of gratitude and good-nights, Cam said, "Theresa's okay inside alone?"
"She'll still be sitting in the rocking chair when I go up to her—that's why I told Missy she could leave. I have a hard time getting Theresa to even come out of the bedroom, and since she's been in a panic at the thought of seeing anyone she used to know, she won't come out for sure until I let her know the coast is clear."
"Any early opinions on our geriatric runaway?"
Neily didn't consider it a breach of confidentiality to tell her brother what she knew because Cam had already been involved with the case.
"Theresa's physical exam showed no indications of mistreatment—and she isn't claiming any when I can get her to answer my questions. She's well fed, well dressed, clean. All in all, she's sound of body, if not of mind. The caseworker in Missoula has done some preliminary checking of the caregiver and the grandson who are coming sometime soon. So far they've been cleared to take over again temporarily when they get here. Under my supervision, anyway. The rest will take interviews and assessment—I'll do that here with Theresa and with whoever comes to be with her."
"But mentally, Theresa is really off," Cam said kindly.
"She has a lot of issues, yes. Memory for one—she keeps forgetting who I am and calling me Mikayla. When I ask who Mikayla is, she can't—or won't—tell me. She does seem to like Mikayla, though."
Against the tide of cars, trucks, vans and people on foot streaming down the hill, an SUV Neily didn't recognize made slow progress toward the house.
"If that's another reporter coming here, I might get violent," she told her brother with a nod at the approaching vehicle.
There had been a public search for Theresa in Missoula. Once she was located in Northbridge, reporters had begun descending on the small town in search of a follow-up story, and they'd become a nuisance.
"I'll check it out and get rid of them," Cam offered. Then, with a glance at Neily as he headed down the porch steps, he said, "You should wash your face—it's full of fireplace soot."
The last group of volunteers came out of the house right then, though, and Neily remained on the porch to say good-night to them, merely brushing blindly at her face in hopes of cleaning it as much as possible.
By the time that last group had left, Cam was back— with guests who seemed shocked by their first glimpse of the house.
"Not a reporter," Cam informed her as the man and a heavyset woman followed him onto the porch. "This is Theresa's grandson, Wyatt Grayson, and her care-giver, Mary Pat Gordman."
Wonderful. And I'm a mess, Neily thought.
She'd known even before her brother's earlier comment that her clothes were soiled and her shoulder-length, chocolate-colored hair was falling shaggily from her ponytail. It certainly wasn't how she normally presented herself professionally. And if that wasn't bad enough, one glimpse of Theresa's grandson only made Neily more self-conscious because she guessed him to be her own age—and he was eye-poppingly handsome.
Not that it mattered under the circumstances, but it definitely didn't make Neily happier to be unkempt herself. It made her feel at a disadvantage.
There wasn't a thing she could do about it, though, so she pretended nothing was amiss and in her most professional-yet-friendly tone of voice, she said, "Hi, I'm Neily Pratt, Theresa's caseworker."
The caregiver hung back but Wyatt Grayson stepped up to meet Neily, standing tall, confident, broad-shouldered, and just muscular enough for the khaki slacks and navy-blue sports shirt he was wearing to give evidence to the fact that he probably worked out.
And then he took a real look at Neily and did a double take.
Do I look that bad?
"I'm sorry about—" she waved her hand up and down in front of herself "—this. We've been cleaning decades of dirt today."
Wyatt Grayson shook his head as if he were dumbstruck. "No, it isn't that," he muttered. Then the dark-blond eyebrows that matched his hair rose from a V into twin arches and he said, "You just look something like—"
"Someone named Mikayla?" Neily guessed. "Because Theresa keeps calling me that."
"Mikayla," Wyatt Grayson repeated, his deep baritone voice echoing with something Neily couldn't pinpoint. "Yes. Mikayla."
No wonder Theresa kept getting confused then.
But Wyatt Grayson didn't explain who Mikayla was, leaving Neily still curious as he recovered himself and held out a hand for her to shake. "Good to meet you, Miss Pratt."
"Neily," she amended.
She didn't know why, but she was uncommonly eager to accept that handshake. And once she had, she was also far too aware of every detail, every nuance of the meeting of his skin with hers, of the feel of that hand closing around hers—big, warm, strong, adept
It was one of the oddest things she'd ever experienced.
But noticing all she was noticing about that simple handshake—and liking it—had no place in this so she ended the contact in a hurry.
Cam spoke up then, while Wyatt Grayson continued to study Neily with intense pewter-gray eyes.
"I have to get to the station, Neily," Cam said. "My shift starts soon. Unless you need me "
"No, go ahead," Neily answered her brother, despite the fact that Wyatt Grayson's scrutiny was beginning to make her uncomfortable. She was grateful when he turned to say goodbye to Cam.
But given the opportunity to do some scrutinizing of her own when Wyatt Grayson wasn't looking, Neily couldn't seem to stop herself.
His gleaming, sun-streaked dark-blond hair was cut short on the sides and slightly longer on top where he wore it in a natural disarray that gave him a casual, devil-may-care look. He had a perfectly shaped, straight nose. His lips were a little on the thin side but had a sort of sexy quirk to their corners. The bone structure of that photogenic face was a sharply defined collection of angles and hollows composed of high cheekbones, lean cheeks and a sculpted jawline. Plus there were those eyes! Sultry gray that she'd already seen reflect silver one minute and blue the next.
But none of that was a factor in anything, she reminded herself. He could have male-model good looks—and, actually, he did—but it wouldn't—couldn't—affect her assessment of him as one of his grandmother's guardians.
"Why don't we go inside?" Neily suggested after her brother headed for his car.
"How is my grandmother? Is she okay? The social worker in Missoula said she was no worse for wear, but her mental state is fragile and she isn't exactly young. Even so, this was an amazing thing for her to do—my brother, sister and I still can't believe she did it."
Neily judged it a positive sign that he was so concerned for Theresa. She led him and the caregiver into the house.
"The Missoula caseworker didn't mislead you. Theresa is okay as far as I can tell—not knowing anything about how she was before this," Neily said. "'None the worse for wear' is probably accurate."
"I want to apologize for no one in the family getting here immediately when authorities reached me on Thursday," Wyatt Grayson said as Neily closed the door behind them. "My sister was in Mexico dealing with a fire in a factory we have down there. She hated leaving at a time like this, but it was an emergency situation and we needed someone there. My brother was with the police in Canada—someone had read about Gram's disappearance and thought he'd try to cash in on it by calling in a ransom demand, and we had to take it seriously. I was alone in Missoula with all the commotion of the search there. Once I was told where Gram was, it seemed like Human Services bogged down Mary Pat and me with so many questions and so much red tape that it was as if they were purposely tying us up in Missoula to keep us from rushing down here. It's been a nightmare."
"I'm sure," Neily said.
She didn't tell him that he was right, that the caseworker in Missoula had purposely delayed him until it seemed relatively clear that harm wasn't likely to come to Theresa through contact with either him or with Theresa's nurse. "Once the police realized that your grandmother was here, I was brought in and I've been looking after her ever since, so there wasn't any hurry."
"Still, I wouldn't want you to get the wrong impression—we've all been crazy-worried about Gram and would have been here in a heartbeat if we could have."
Neily led the two new arrivals from the entry into the living room.
"Where is Gram?" Wyatt Grayson asked, glancing around in search of his grandmother.
"Why don't you and Ms. Gordman—"
"Mary Pat," the larger woman said, her first words.
"Why don't you and Mary Pat have a seat and I'll try to get Theresa down here to see you? She's been in the bedroom all day and I'd like her to come out if she's willing," Neily told them.
Neither the nurse nor the grandson accepted the invitation to sit, and Neily's impression was that they were both too concerned about Theresa to relax. That, too, seemed like a good indication they truly cared for the woman.
Neily excused herself and retraced her steps to the entryway, climbing the stairs to the second level.
She knocked lightly on the door of the master suite but didn't wait for a response from inside. She'd already learned that more often than not Theresa was too lost in her own world to even hear the knock.
Neily had predicted that Theresa would be sitting in the rocking chair and that was exactly where the older woman was, rocking back and forth as if the motion soothed her, staring at nothing in particular.
Theresa Hobbs Grayson was a relatively small woman—a full four inches shorter than Neily's five-foot-four-inch height. But she was somewhat rounder than Neily, who didn't carry many extra pounds. Theresa's salt-and-pepper-hued hair was cut short and neat, and while her gray eyes didn't hold the luster and life and different play of colors that her grandson's did, it struck Neily that Wyatt had inherited his own sparkling gray eyes from his grandmother. Along with his good looks, because Theresa was an attractive older woman.