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When Nora Loftis had emerged from a roadside ditch, bloody and beaten, raped and tortured, dazed and half-crazed, she'd at least thought she had survived.
Little did she realize that her battle for survival was hardly over.
Three months later, still healing in so many ways, she arrived at the baggage carousel in the Denver airport to be greeted by one of the last people she ever wanted to see again.
Jake Madison, larger than life, towering over six feet, built like a cheesecake dream, wearing jeans and a loden-green chamois shirt under a light jacket. His hair was still intensely dark, and his eyes were still that peculiar green, a color that seemed to be lit from within. If anything, the years had made him more attractive . Stronger, broader, more like an oak than a sapling.
And he was still one of the reasons she had avoided her hometown of Conard City. He was a big reason, but not the only reason.
He saw her and nodded, but something about his eyes seemed to narrow.
Well, she looked like hell, and he hated her anyway, and they had a history she would have preferred to utterly forget. Why wouldn't his eyes narrow? And why had her dad sent him of all people?
She fought down an almost overwhelming urge to turn and run. But while she might need a place to lick her wounds, she had also developed some backbone, and she was damned if she would give him the satisfaction.
"Nora," he said when she approached. His voice had deepened, too. Everything about him had reached the fullness of manhood while she'd been gone.
"Jake." She hoped she sounded cool. Inside she felt as if nerves already stretched too tight had just stretched tighter still.
"Your dad asked me to get you," he said, explaining. "His car is acting up."
"Thanks." Short and ungracious. Well, he didn't deserve any better from her, not after what he had done to her. She'd avoided him for twelve years and Conard City for ten. Now her choices had become limited to one.
She turned to watch the carousel, where the first bags had begun to appear. Maybe she could pretend he wasn't even there.
"You won't find the town much changed," he remarked.
"I didn't think I would. It never changes."
"Oh, things change," he replied calmly. "Lots of things."
She let that lie. Bad enough that she had to come home without hearing cheery stories about how things had changed for the better. She wouldn't believe them anyway.
He picked up her luggage for her, leaving her with only her rolling carry-on to tag along behind him out to the parking garage, where he stowed her bags in the back of his tan Jeep. Then she climbed into the passenger seat, looking straight ahead, thinking that if there was one thing she didn't need now, it was a couple of hours in the car with Jake Madison.
He seemed to feel the same, surprisingly enough, and didn't offer any kind of casual conversation. Good, she thought. Good. Because she just plain wasn't up to it.
The doctors had told her she would tire easily for weeks to come, and that she needed to conserve her energy for what was most important. Already she could feel her nerves letting go, simply because she couldn't maintain the tension. Not now, not for a while.
After Jake paid the parking fee and pulled out onto the exit road, he spoke again. "I heard what happened."
"I don't want to talk about it."
A mile passed, then another, before he spoke again. "I'm just letting you know that people are talking.
"Surprise, surprise. Apparently that hasn't changed."
He glanced at her. "Bitter now, too?"
"Maybe I have cause."
"Maybe so." But he let it drop.
Pointedly, she closed her eyes, not wanting to talk to him at all. Then, without warning, fatigue crashed down on her between one instant and the next. She fell soundly asleep before they'd made it all the way out of the suburbs of Denver, and she didn't wake until they were drawing near her home.
The familiar state highway into Conard City carried Nora Loftis back too many years. Way too many years. It also carried her to a home she had vowed never to visit again.
The wide expanses of ranch landbrown now as winter drew closer, tumbleweed snared in fencesstill looked desolate. Had she ever seen the beauty out here? But the purpling mountains ahead were still beautiful, still drew her as mountains always had. She had missed them during her years working in Minneapolis. Gentler hills were just not the same.
But the rest of it, she assured herself, she had not missed at all. Not the endless roads that seemed to go nowhere, not the outlying ranches or the few small subdivisions. And certainly not the main street, captured in an early twentieth century kind of amber, a mixture of archaeological finds left over from the 1880s to a few newer World War II era buildings. The town had enjoyed a number of booms and a few busts, and the last bust still lingered, a kind of genteel poverty for all but a handful, who managed to prosper anyway.
Outside town, before she faced the sorrow of the main street, she saw a sign announcing the construction of a new ski resort. Another boom in the making, maybe, one that would change the character of the town yet again.
It needed some changing.
She hated coming back, but she had nowhere else to go. Not now.
The speed limit lowered, taking them along a f lat stretch of road that boasted little but an occasional road-house. Closer to town, she saw the modernity of some new fast-food joints that didn't appear to be doing well. That much modernity had arrived here, too. Even with so few people and despite the closing of the semiconductor plant that had been this town's last boom. The ranchers hereabouts were barely enough to keep the place going.
"I saw it in the papers," her father had said when he phoned, the first words he'd spoken to her in a decade.
"Come home, girl." An offer made too late, but one she had been unable to refuse with her life in ashes all around her.
What else could you do when the big bad world had treated you so horribly you were almost afraid to stick your nose out the door? What else could you do when you'd become famousor infamous, dependingand the world wouldn't leave you alone to lick your wounds?
He'd seen it in the papers. Even here. That meant Jake knew, too. All those sordid details.
Her hands tightened into fists until her knuckles turned white and her fingers ached. She couldn't bring herself to look at Jake as he managed the town streets with the ease of familiarity.
A sharp right turn, then a left, and they were on the main street, a veritable visual essay of the town's past, most of which seemed to have been a matter of aging as gracefully as possible.
They drove past the hulks of Freitag's Mercantile on one side and the Lakota Hotel on the other. One busy and surviving, the other barely holding together as a sort of rooming house. Past her dad's pharmacy, and then past the courthouse square and the sheriff's office.
Past Mahoney's saloon, with a history stretching back to the brief boom of the 1880s. No matter how good or bad the times, people always wanted drink. Even more so when times were bad.
Then a sharp left turn onto her dad's street. Victorian houses, built on long narrow lots, lined the street, along with trees as old as the houses. People who had never lived here found it charming. It made Nora feel claustrophobic.
And finally, Jake pulled into the driveway behind her dad's car, an old white Caddy he'd been nursing for so many years it was probably now an expensive collectible.
"Here we are," he said, as if she wouldn't know.
Only then did Nora realize that she was shaking, physically and emotionally. Stop it, she told herself. Stop it.
On joints that felt far older than her thirty years, she climbed out of the car, stiff and aching from the long drive.
If her dad had seen it in the papers, so had everyone else in town.
Jake pulled all three of her bags out of the back of his car and dragged them up onto the porch ahead of her.
She climbed the front porch steps like a stranger instead of using the side door. Wood creaked beneath her weight, which was much less than even a few months ago. Like a stranger, she knocked, then put her fisted hands at her sides, waiting. She could almost feel eyes boring into her from the surrounding houses.
"See you around," Jake said. She turned her head, watching as he climbed into his Jeep and drove off. Leaving her alone with the rest of her past.
Then the door opened and her dad faced her. The past ten years had taken a toll on him, too. Every one of them seemed to have etched itself deeply into his face, and his rotund figure had become lean. He regarded her steadily from blue eyes just like hers, shook his head a little.
"Come in, girl. It's getting chilly. I'm making breakfast."
Breakfast for dinner. His favorite meal. He turned and walked toward the kitchen, so she followed. A kind of numbness filled her as she moved through familiar rooms, the typical "gunshot" design, from front room through bedrooms to kitchen and bath. Only one addition gave any privacy, and it had always been her bedroom. Probably would be again.
"Have a seat," he said, motioning to the small table with its cracked plastic top and four chairs that were older than she was.
She sat and let him pour her a steaming mug of coffee. He placed it in front of her and she reached for it, realizing she needed some kind of warmth and fortification for whatever was coming.
At last her body began to react to her environment rather than her fear and anger. She smelled the sizzling bacon, the coffee, the bread browning in the toaster. Good smells. Not everything about home was bad.
But very little of it was good.
Her dad kept his back to her as he worked at the gas stove. Rude? Unwelcoming? Or just her dad at his oblivious best? What had she expected? A hug?
Of course not. Too much lay between them, both time and events. Even though she had accepted his invitation with huge reluctance, she suspected he had offered it with even more. Angry words, fights, accusations. Too much history.
And maybe not enough.
She still couldn't understand why he had called her to come home. The only reason she could imagine was that everyone knew what had happened. God forbid he should look uncharitable to the church that was the center of his life.
"How's everyone?" she asked finally.
"About the same." He didn't even glance her way. Then the first prick. "'Course, you been away awhile."
He made up the plates with eggs, toast and bacon and brought them to the table, placing one in front of her. She realized she still wore her coat, so she slipped it off and hung it over the back of her chair while her dad grabbed some flatware.
He sat across from her and bowed his head, saying grace. He didn't ask her to join him, though once he would have insisted. These days she didn't feel like giving thanks for much of anything.
Her dad spoke as he spooned marmalade onto a slice of toast. "Jody said you should stop by."
Jody, her best friend during all the growing-up years until Nora had finally left town for good. Once they had dreamed together of escaping to the larger world. Only Nora had escaped. "How's she doing?"
"Pretty busy with four kids."
Her dad let his gaze skim her way. "Two boys, two girls. Married Dave Anson."
"I remember Dave. That's a lot of kids in ten years."
No reply from her father. Fred Loftis had pretty much let his attitude about women's roles solidify in the Stone Age.
"Why did you send Jake?" she asked. Jake, the guy she had so brazenly offered herself to right after high school graduation only to be scorned in a way that had left a permanent scar.
"He could get away." A simple response. She wondered if it was really that simple. Fred Loftis wasn't tone-deaf, he just didn't listen.
Great. "And Beth?" The girl Jake had scorned her for.
"They divorced. No kids."
"Oh." Could she be excused for feeling a twinge of vengeful satisfaction? Of course not. She didn't have to become an ugly person just because the world was full of ugly people. But that probably explained what Jake had meant about things changing.
Her dad finished his first slice of toast, then used the other to dip in his egg. Nora forced herself to eat a few bites, even though her stomach was so tight there didn't seem to be room for even a mouthful of toast.
"Not much has changed," her father said after a bit. "Folks are hoping a new ski resort will liven things up. I'm not sure about that."
Of course he wasn't sure about that. Owning the only pharmacy in a hundred miles had made him a secure man, if not a wealthy one. Why should he care that others needed more and better jobs? Besides, growth could bring in one of those chains to compete with him.
She knew all the arguments. She'd grown up with them, and a whole lot of others besides. Arguments about her, mostly, but some about her mom, too. Maybe the ugliest ones about her mom.
She watched her dad wipe his plate clean with a final piece of toast. Only then did he look at her again.
"You need to eat," he said flatly. "You're all skin and bones."
"I just got out of the hospital. It'll take time." She didn't mention having been in jail, falsely accused. She still couldn't bring herself to say that out loud.
Eventually she managed to choke down the two pieces of toast. The sight of the eggs and bacon sickened her.
And for once he didn't expect her to do the dishes. He picked them up himself, rinsed them and put them in a dishwasher.
"You have a dishwasher!" She couldn't believe it. Her mom had wanted one for years, and he'd always refused.
"Don't have time to wash up myself."
The bile of anger filled her mouth. Didn't have time to wash up after himself? Just one person?
Jumping up from the table, she decided to get her bags from the porch. It would have been nice to stomp out and never come back, the way she had ten years ago after her mother's funeral, but there wasn't a place she could go. She was stuck. Stuck.
"Your room's ready," he called after her.
"Big deal," she said under her breath, between her teeth. One by one she grabbed her bags and wrestled them to her bedroom off the kitchen. He didn't offer to help.
Of course not. He never had. Instead he plopped himself down in front of the television and turned on a football game.
No, nothing had changed. Except a dishwasher. And her entire life.