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In The Arms Of A Stranger
By Kristin Robinette
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChief Luke Sutherlin sat his coffee mug on top of a battered file cabinet and watched chaos consume his police station.
"Chief, another storm report is coming in." Lieutenant Ben Allen hovered over the computer terminal as it began printing.
Luke nodded, dreading the fact that he'd be trapped in the station today. Working closely with his officers wasn't a favorite part of his job. His men accepted that a Sutherlin was, yet again, in charge. Respected his authority, maybe. But they didn't like him. Not even on a good day.
And today was definitely not a good day.
He walked slowly to where Ben stood and scanned the information as it printed. When the terminal finally stilled, he ripped the paper away and read it in detail.
"Looks like the storm will go north of Sweetwater, after all," Lieutenant Allen offered in a too-cheerful voice.
A winter storm had built west of the Mississippi River and was now burying North Alabama and Tennessee under a blanket of ice and snow. It was a freak storm, the television meteorologists explained with panicked expressions, something they'd never seen before, much less in early March. Authorities originally predicted it would sweep across the North Georgia Mountains with the same fury, but the storm had weakened and was headed north of them.
Luke breathed a sigh of relief. They were accustomed to occasional snow flurries but were ill equipped to handle a storm of this magnitude. This was the South. He could count ten tornadoes for every true snowstorm he'd seen. He tossed the report on Ben's desk.
"What's that?" He pointed to a crumpled slip of yellow paper with his name scrawled at the top.
"Oh ..." Ben smoothed the paper before offering it to him. "It's a message, sir. I'm sorry. I took it late last night."
He pulled it from Ben's hand. Shelly Henson. The name stopped him cold. His father's mistress. Former mistress, he amended. He hadn't seen or heard from Shelly in over a year. Why had she called the station?
Ben had scribbled the message with a fat felt-tipped marker: "I'll be returning what belongs to you." Shelly had taken a couple of hundred dollars from his wallet a year ago, the night he'd taken her in. He winced at the memory.
After having received a frantic call from the housekeeper, Luke had arrived at his father's house to find Shelly lying on the polished marble floor, her face bruised and the smell of fear in the air. His stepmother had merely watched the distasteful scene play out with cool detachment. But then, Miss Camille, as she liked to be called despite her age and marital status, had never made any secret of his father's affairs. On the contrary, she wore them like a badge of honor. Proof of what she was forced to endure.
His father had made himself conveniently absent by then, leaving Luke to see to the nasty details.
Luke had brought Shelly back to his place, then valiantly tried to wipe the scene out of his head with a bottle of booze. It hadn't worked. Not that night or any night since.
Why Shelly Henson would feel the need to make amends at all was beyond him. The theft was nothing compared to his own behavior that night. He rotated his stiff right shoulder. His shoulder had never failed to predict a storm, not in twenty-two years. Not since his sixteenth birthday, when his father had broken it.
Luke wadded up the note and threw it into the trash can.
Lucas Daniel Sutherlin, Sr., was the financial nucleus of Sweetwater and, therefore, a necessary evil. Sutherlin factories still employed most of the townspeople despite their tragic past. Too bad his father's character hadn't grown along with his stock holdings.
Why was it some men seemed born with absolution while others couldn't be forgiven for simply having the wrong last name?
Luke walked across the station's gritty tile floor and retrieved his coffee. He took a long sip, wishing for the comforting sting of Jack Daniels instead. He examined the faces of his men over the rim of the mug. Their condemnation wasn't visible, but it was there. He was a Sutherlin. The badge he wore would never make amends for that fact. He glanced at the trashcan where the note lay crumpled. Shelly should keep the money.
It was the least the Sutherlin men could do.
"Chief!" someone called.
A few officers had gathered around a small television set, intermittently twisting its antennae to try and capture the reception that bounced elusively off the mountains. Luke joined them. Through the snowy picture, he could see the smiling face of the meteorologist as he pointed to the fickle storm front on the map.
The man looked immensely relieved. Too relieved, Luke thought.
"Looks like we're out of danger." Ben offered a grin along with the comment.
Luke rotated his shoulder again, and scowled at the television. He had a feeling otherwise.
* * *
Snow was falling, covering the ground like a fuzzy white blanket. Wet, fat snowflakes covered the windshield as fast as the wipers slid them to one side. Dana Langston had never considered being a Southerner a liability, but it certainly felt that way now. Accustomed to Atlanta's mild winters, she had no idea how to drive in snow, much less on a sheet of ice. She gripped the Acura's steering wheel, too terrified to blink as the terrain of the North Georgia Mountains turned to rock-faced cliffs.
It was almost dark, the storm clouds stealing what was left of the twilight at an alarming rate. The temperature would drop even further soon, freezing the slush to solid ice. Clyde Jenkins, the news station's midday producer and her boss, had given Dana the keys to his vacation cabin, along with a box of tissues, a fatherly lecture on professionalism and three weeks' mandatory leave. Whether or not her job waited on her when she returned depended on how thoroughly she could get her personal life in order.
Excerpted from In The Arms Of A Stranger by Kristin Robinette Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.