The Last Chance Cafe (Women of Primrose Creek Series #5)by Linda Lael Miller
New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller captures the passionate heart of America in this powerful contemporary novel set in a small Western town. Seeking shelter from the storms of life, a woman who is down on her luck finds an unexpected refuge at
THE LAST CHANCE CAFÉ
With acres of land and a house that have been in his/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller captures the passionate heart of America in this powerful contemporary novel set in a small Western town. Seeking shelter from the storms of life, a woman who is down on her luck finds an unexpected refuge at
THE LAST CHANCE CAFÉ
With acres of land and a house that have been in his family for generations, rancher Chance Qualtrough has deep roots in Primrose Creek. Now, at the local diner, he is about to encounter his futureŠ.Perhaps it was fate that brought Hallie O'Rourke and her two young daughters to the Last Chance Café. More likely, it was the blinding Nevada snowstorm and a broken-down truck that forced the desperate single mother inside. Hallie couldn't know that she would find not just a hot meal and a few hours' rest, but the start of a new life. And Chance doesn't know that Hallie is fleeing a danger so threatening she dares not ask anyone for help. Even his kind offer of his aunt's house as lodging seems like too great a risk for Hallie.
But her fierce protection of her children wins out, and she knows she has no choice but to accept Chance's invitation. Slowly, as Chance and Hallie break down barriers of fear and doubt, trust takes hold. Hope replaces despair. And a fragile attraction grows into an undeniable passion. From the moment she took a chance with a handsome stranger in a country diner, everything Hallie has ever believed about home and family is seen through new eyes. But Hallie can never forget that just one careless word could bring back the past with full force, and could destroy all that she has made her own.
With a richly emotional storytelling style that has enchanted readers worldwide, Linda Lael Miller explores the secrets and wishes that push a woman's heart to new tomorrows and -- forever and always -- to lasting love.
Read an Excerpt
Joel Royer laid a hand on Hallie's forearm and cleared his throat in an effort to get her attention, but she couldn't look away from the body, the remnant, the wax figure that had once been her stepfather. Dear Lou, good cop, solid citizen, erstwhile knight in shining armor. He'd been at the core of her life since she was six, and his passing had left her scrambling for balance.
"It's over," Joel murmured, with undisguised relief. "Let's get out of here." His palm rested lightly on the small of her back, barely touching her and yet poised to administer one of those skillful, all but imperceptible shoves that always made her grind her back teeth a little. In that place, and in those circumstances, barely holding on the way she was, she wanted to whirl on him, spitting invectives.
"I'll meet you outside," she said instead. Her voice sounded moderate, even impassive, a strange state of affairs, given the maelstrom of angry grief raging inside her, a psychological fire storm that showed no signs of dissipating anytime soon.
Her resistance did not please Joel, but then, very little about her ever had. She was alternately too smart, then too stupid. Too ambitious, too lazy. Too strong, too weak.
He hesitated, as if preparing one of his brilliant arguments, then sighed and walked away to join the other mourners milling in the entryway and on the sidewalk outside the funeral home. There would be a wake at the Late Shift Tavern, a celebration of Lou's life and career, packed with cops, retired and active-duty, and their wives, but there was no graveside service on the schedule. Lou had left clear instructions that he was to be cremated, and he trusted Hallie to dispose of his ashes at her discretion -- "wherever," as he'd put it. She smiled ever so slightly to recall that Lou-esque stipulation, specific, but leaving room for interpretation. Still reeling from the suddenness and violence of his death, she hadn't thought as far as potential ash-scattering locations yet.
She reached out, touched his right hand. The chill was hard, penetrating, and her first instinct was to recoil, but she didn't give in. She looked back, making sure the room was empty, and then turned to Lou again, squeezing his icy fingers once, lightly. Tears stung her eyes, and she sniffled, as jerky eight-millimeter images flashed through her mind: Lou, trying to pass himself off as Santa Claus that first Christmas after he joined the family, when Hallie was in first grade, and waxing skeptical where such things as sleigh-driving saints, elves and flying reindeer were concerned; Lou, proudly filming her dance-school recitals, drill team and cheerleading exploits and various graduation ceremonies, too: Cactus Ridge High, Scottsdale Community College, and culinary school. Lou, keeping a brave vigil at her mother's bedside, while Cheryl died a lingering and unjust death from cancer. He'd been a pillar for everybody, though even then Hallie had known he was crumbling inside, broken by the most profound loss of his life. He'd carried on, for Hallie's sake and his own, and that, too, was vintage Lou. His creed had been a simple one: show up, stick it out, never sit on the bench if you can be in the game.
"You were the best," Hallie whispered to him now, hoping his spirit was somewhere nearby, close enough to hear, and at peace now. God knew, he hadn't been himself the past few months; he'd been stressed out, and more than a little cranky. "You adored Mom. And you didn't just accept me, or tolerate me -- I was your kid. You really, truly loved me. Thank you for that, Lou. Thank you for coming along just when we needed you and for hanging in there for all the ups and downs."
From behind her, probably in the open doorway, came more throat-clearing. She didn't have to turn around to know Joel was back, hovering, hurrying her along, mentally prodding her as if they were still married, instead of three-years divorced. She suppressed her irritation again, already on emotional overload. She needed to choose her battles, more now than ever before, and she simply didn't have the resources for an all-out skirmish with Joel.
She leaned down a little closer to Lou. "I know you'd tell me to walk away from all this and never look back, if you could," she told him softly, "and you'd be right, too. Still, I don't think it will come as any great surprise to you that I can't just let this go, because I'll never have another coherent thought if I do. I'll find out who shot you, and why, and I'll see them pay, if it's the last thing I ever do."
"Hallie?" Joel's voice was gruff. He was closing in, probably within prodding distance.
Hallie bit her lower lip and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she thought she saw the barest suggestion of a smile touch one corner of Lou's mouth. Her imagination, of course. "Good-bye," she said gently. Then, spine straight, shoulders squared, she turned and walked back down the aisle, between the pews and the rows of folding chairs squeezed in to accommodate the sold-out crowd, toward the man she should never have married in the first place.
"You're going to the wake, right?" Joel wanted to know. Tall, with sleek brown hair, stylishly cut, he looked more like an uptown lawyer than a struggling assistant D.A. The twins, Kiera and Kiley, now seven, had inherited his distinctive blue-gray eyes. Kiley had his persistence, too, and his tendency to make a federal case out of everything.
It seemed to Hallie that her most sensitive nerves had migrated to the surface of her skin, jangling a discordant chorus there, and she was so tired she could barely focus her eyes, but the people gathering at the Late Shift were Lou's colleagues and friends, some of whom had known him since his days at the Academy. She owed it to them, and to Lou, to put in an appearance, although truly the last thing she felt like doing was hoisting a glass. Unless, of course, the glass contained white wine, to be consumed by candlelight while she soaked neck-deep in her old-fashioned bathtub at home.
There had to be some kind of informal send-off, of course. Lou had made the most of his time on the planet, but his passing was premature to say the least. He'd been fifty-eight years old, and in excellent health, with a lot of good living still ahead of him, and he'd died cruelly, in the very place he should have been safest, taking five shots in the chest when he'd surprised a burglar in his living room. That, at least, was the official position; Hallie couldn't quite square it all in her mind.
"Yes," Hallie answered, albeit belatedly. "I'll stop by for a little while."
"The kids are okay?" Joel was trying, she gave him credit for that. Although he paid support, and made all the appropriate father-noises, whenever she rattled his cage, anyway, she knew he wasn't really interested in their children. On some level, he was a child himself, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to share the nest.
"They're with Mrs. Draper, across the courtyard," Hallie answered, with a distracted nod. An odd numbness was beginning to roll in, like a fog, from the far edges of her consciousness. She should have welcomed any semblance of oblivion, she supposed, blessed and embraced any respite from the gnawing sorrow, and the wild, quiet fury; instead, she struggled to stay grounded. If she was going to keep her promise to Lou, and to herself -- and she was, by God -- she couldn't afford to lose her edge.
"You seem a little shaky to me."
Go away, Joel, she wanted to say, leave me alone, but again she held her tongue. "I'm fine," she lied. The truth was, in the five days since Lou's murder, she'd barely slept or eaten. Her stomach lining burned twenty-four-seven, probably eating a hole in itself, and a low-grade migraine pulsed at the base of her skull. She'd replayed old tapes from her answering machine over and over, fast-forwarding through countless mundane messages, seeking the unique timbre of Lou's voice, trying to find some hint there, some clue that he'd been in trouble. There hadn't been any red flags, and yet . . .
Oh, she was anything but fine.
The police were looking for a burglar, a cheap hood with a drug habit and a quick trigger finger. Hallie, meanwhile, was haunted by an inexplicable certainty that the killing had been about something else entirely, something a lot more complicated. The question was, what?
Outside, in the crisp October sunlight, fading now as the afternoon wore on toward another long night, Joel moved to touch Hallie's back again. She skirted him, offered a hand to Lou's captain, who was waiting on the sidewalk, next to the limo.
"Thanks for being here, Lenny," she said.
Genuine tears brimmed in Lenny Bennedetto's eyes. His wife, Rose, held his arm and leaned against him, offering silent comfort. "Lou was a decent guy," he said. For Lenny, notorious for understatement, this was unbridled praise. "It's a shame this had to happen."
Hallie nodded. Kissed Lenny's cheek, then Rose's.
"You're coming by the wake, of course?" Rose asked. Lou had liked her, said she looked out for other cops' wives.
"For a little while," Hallie agreed, suppressing a sigh. For Lou, she would do it, drink a glass of wine, say hello and thank you to his many friends, slip out as soon as she could.
"I'll make sure she gets there okay," Joel offered.
Once again, Hallie was annoyed. Once again, she stifled the feeling, kept her mouth shut. Let this day be over, was her mantra. I just want to go home.
Joel settled her in the back of the limo, then slipped in beside her, sitting a fraction of an inch too close on the sleek leather seat.
Hallie moved over a little. "How's Barbara?" she asked. She liked Joel's latest fiancÉe -- he'd had several since their divorce -- though she didn't know her well. She applied acrylics at Sue's Nailhouse, took an endearing pride in her work, and, best of all, she was nice to Kiera and Kiley.
Joel took her hand, and she didn't have the strength to pull away. "Never mind her," he said. "I've been thinking, Hallie -- maybe we should try it again. You and me, I mean. After all, we have the kids -- "
Hallie stared at her ex-husband, amazed. They'd done nothing but fight while they were married, and the divorce hadn't done a great deal to change that. She'd worked hard to build her reputation as a chef, then open her small restaurant, Princess and the Pea, and build it into a thriving concern. She'd pursued her goals single-mindedly, made a life for herself and the twins, put aside cash, paid off piles of old bills. She wasn't about to revisit her misguided past. "You can't be serious," she said.
"I know I made some mistakes," he allowed. Generous of him.
She reached the end of her rope with a painful yank, nearly strangled on the impact. "Right," she said. "You started sleeping with your secretary before our honeymoon was over. Then there was that girl who sold shoes at Nordstrom, followed by the law clerk who liked to leave her panties in your briefcase -- "
"Hallie." He was scolding her. God, the nerve, the unmitigated gall of the man to even think there was a chance they could start over, let alone make the suggestion right to her face.
It came to her that he was still holding her hands and she wrenched free, as exasperated with herself as she was with him. "Don't, Joel," she said. "Don't say another word. Our marriage is over -- heck, it was probably over before it started. Let's just leave it at that, because if this conversation doesn't stop right here, right now, I'll say something I'll regret, and I don't want to do that."
"Of course you don't." He smiled fondly, certain of his irresistibility.
"Because of Lou," she clarified.
He gazed soulfully into her eyes for a long moment, injured. "Because of Lou," he echoed.
Hallie simply shook her head.
Within fifteen minutes, the limo was purring at the curb in front of the Late Shift, where Lou had played darts and billiards and swapped stories with old pals. After her mother's death, the place had been a second home for him, a congenial refuge where there was always light, music and good beer.
The bar was packed, and people seemed to surge toward her from every direction, kissing her cheek, patting her hand, telling her what a great guy Lou had been. Swamping her with emotions that nearly took her breath away. She smiled resolutely, listening and nodding at intervals, trying hard not to cry. For the better part of two hours, she kept up the front, avoiding Joel to the best of her ability, listening to tall tales about Lou's exploits as a vice cop, tucking them away in her heart like matchbook covers and postcards in a scrapbook.
There was only one customer in the Late Shift whom she didn't recognize, an older man, with a long face and deep pouches under his eyes. He'd probably been handsome once, maybe even athletic, given his tall, rangy frame, but time had extracted its full measure, moment by moment, year by year. She might have thought he was there by accident, and not a mourner at all, the way he sat keeping his own counsel and nursing a cup of coffee at the far end of the bar, talking to no one, except that every time her glance strayed in his direction, she caught him looking right back at her. He wasn't even trying to be subtle about it.
Prompted by a certain distracted curiosity, she made her way toward him, perched on the edge of the empty stool next to his.
He managed a lugubrious smile as he took in her trim dark suit and pearls, raised his coffee cup slightly off the saucer, as if to toast her. "Hello, Hallie," he said.
She studied him, tilting her head to one side. Maybe he was a member of Lou's bowling league or something, and she'd encountered him at one of her stepfather's boisterous backyard barbeques. "Have we met?"
"Once or twice," he said. "It's not important." He put out a hand. "Name's Charlie Long," he explained. "Lou and I were buddies, and business associates, after a fashion."
Hallie felt a strange quickening, deep in her middle, in that place where gut instincts hang out, as she shook his hand. "I didn't see you at the service," she said.
"I try to avoid funerals." Charlie took a pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his tobacco-scented suit jacket, shook one out, offered it halfheartedly to Hallie. As he'd probably expected, she refused, and he lit up, drew deeply on the smoke, exhaled across the wide surface of the bar.
"Well, thank you for coming to the wake," Hallie said. The brief silence that had fallen between them, a little void in the center of chaos, was untenable. "Lou would have appreciated that."
Charlie gave a raspy chuckle that Hallie might have read as contempt if she hadn't caught a glimpse of sad amusement in his hound-dog eyes. "Lou and me, we said all that needed to be said, before the fact. I'm here for two reasons, Mrs. Royer -- one, I wanted to talk to you, and two, I believe in hiding in plain sight." She didn't correct him, though she hadn't used her married name since the divorce. In her mind, she was Hallie Waitlin, Lou and Cheryl's daughter.
A little shiver moved up her spine. Here it came, the news she'd expected, suspected, and dreaded, all at once, from the moment she'd learned of Lou's death. She braced herself, waited.
"These guys," Charlie said, cocking a thumb over one slumped shoulder, apparently to indicate not just Lou's friends, but the police department itself, "will tell you that the perp was a small-time thug, just somebody who didn't expect to get caught tossing a house, and panicked when he did." He paused, studied her face, made a visible decision to trust her. "It's bullshit, pure and simple." He took a very small manila packet from the same pocket where he'd stashed his cigarettes earlier, laid it on the bar, nodded his approval when she automatically palmed the item and slid it into her purse. "Lou Waitlin could have handled any fruitcake cat burglar. This was a professional hit. Company business."
Hallie's mouth fell open, and her stomach dropped, spinning. She wanted to protest that Charlie's theory was crazy, something out of a movie or a bad detective novel, but she knew it wasn't. The idea resonated only too well with her own admittedly nebulous suspicions.
Charlie looked around casually, spotted Joel making his way through the crowd, just as Hallie did.
"I'd better get out of here," he said.
Hallie nodded. She wanted to take out the packet he'd given her then and there, see what it contained, but she didn't move. She watched as Charlie Long laid a five-dollar bill on the bar and shouldered his way through the crowd of cops toward the door.
Joel reached her side. "Who was that?"
"No idea," Hallie said, frowning.
"Are you ready to go home?"
"Yes," she replied, secure in the truth of that single word, if nothing else.
He peered through the front window at the street, squinting a little. "The limo is gone."
"I'll get a cab," she said, and hurried away before he could offer to join her. All she could think about, in that moment, was the packet Charlie had given her; whatever was inside would change her life, probably irrevocably. A sensible person would toss the thing into the nearest trash bin and forget about it. Hallie wasn't sensible, not where Lou Waitlin's murder was concerned.
Outside, the night breeze was picking up and there was no sign of Charlie. Maybe, Hallie thought, with grim fancy, she'd imagined him, along with their brief but patently disturbing conversation. By some miracle, a cab was passing; she raised one hand, well aware that Joel was probably headed in her direction at that very moment, and the car rattled to a stop at the curb.
She jumped in, spouted her address, and felt a dizzying sense of relief as she looked back through the rear window. Joel was on the sidewalk, hands stuffed into the pockets of his stylish overcoat, watching the car pull away.
Within twenty minutes, she was home. She tipped the driver generously and dashed up the walk to her own door, fumbling a little with the key. Inside, she flipped on the hall lights, paused beside the telephone table in the hallway -- the light on the answering machine was blinking -- debated her options for a moment, wanting to open the packet, wanting not to open it, then pressed the play button. Mrs. Draper might have called with some concern about Kiley and Kiera.
The voice she heard was totally unfamiliar, the tone quietly callous, and somehow insinuating. "I saw you at the bar, Hallie," the man said. "What was in the package?"
Hallie laid a hand to her heart, her breathing rapid and shallow, her eyes wide with alarm. The message ended with the click of a receiver being replaced, and she knew, even before she checked the caller ID screen, that the effort was wasted. Unknown name, unknown number, it read.
She turned around, locked and bolted the door behind her, then walked through the dining room to the spacious kitchen. Through the window over the sink, she could see the courtyard, still riotous with summer roses, and the lights of Nora Draper's townhouse. She fumbled for the phone hanging near the stove, speed-dialed the number.
Her neighbor answered immediately, and the cheerful sound of her voice nearly made Hallie's knees buckle with relief. She freed her shoulder-length hair from its clip at the back of her head and ran the fingers of her right hand through it. She would shed pearls, suit and pantyhose as soon as it was feasible.
"It's me, Hallie," she said. "I'm back. Are Kiera and Kiley okay?"
"Why, bless your heart," Nora replied, "they're just fine. We're having a slumber party."
Hallie swallowed in an effort to rein in her emotions a little. "You're sure you don't mind keeping the girls overnight?"
"Mind? I'm enjoying every moment." There was a gentle pause. "Are you all right, dear? Do you need anything? I just hate to think of you over there all alone, trying to cope with a loss like this. You could sleep here, you know. I'd fold out the hide-a-bed."
Hallie smiled, blinking back tears. "I really just need to rest," she said quietly. She would examine the contents of the little manila envelope now, have that private glass of wine she'd been promising herself, that long, hot bath, and then slip between the sheets, close her eyes and, please God, step outside her life, however temporarily, into sweet oblivion. Time enough to think about the phone message when the daylight returned. "I'll come and get the girls in the morning."
"You're exhausted," Nora said kindly. "Get a good night's sleep."
"I will," Hallie promised, missing her long-dead mother sorely, missing Lou. She had her daughters and a few friends -- acquaintances, really, since her long work days hadn't left much time for socializing -- and she was used to being independent, but she'd never felt more profoundly alone, or more vulnerable.
She hung up, checked the front and back locks again, then sat down at the dining room table, opened her purse, and took out the small envelope. Her fingers trembled slightly as she lifted the flap and turned the package upside down.
There was a little brass key inside, with a paper tag attached, on which Lou had written, Virgin Mary. Hallie smiled and shook her head, immediately breaking the code.
She held the key against her heart for a long moment, then carried it into her bedroom and set it carefully on her nightstand. She proceeded to the adjoining bathroom, where she lit candles and started water running in the tub, then backtracked to the kitchen for a glass of Chardonnay. After a long, restorative soak, she put on a cotton nightshirt and crawled into bed, where, to her great surprise, she slept soundly until the twins awakened her the next morning, leaping on the mattress and bouncing with their usual exuberance.
Hallie groaned, then laughed, then got out of bed. At the start of that day, so innocent and so ordinary, she could not have imagined how it would end.
"We're going to Grampa's place," she said, when she was dressed, and the three of them had had cereal and fruit at the breakfast bar.
Two sets of blue-gray eyes regarded her solemnly.
"Grampa's dead," Kiley said, as though that dispensed with any need to set foot in the man's house.
"Don't say that," Kiera protested.
"Enough," Hallie said, and poured herself a second cup of coffee. She was stalling. Lou's place, without Lou. It would be like a body without a heart. The girls missed him terribly; he'd been a surrogate father to them, since Joel wasn't interested. "If you'd rather stay with Mrs. Draper, I'm sure it can be arranged."
"I want to go with you," Kiera said.
"Me, too," Kiley decided.
Hallie went into her room, collected the key, slipped it into the hip pocket of her jeans. Then, taking her coffee along, she collected her car keys, locked up the condo, and loaded the kids into the backseat of her navy blue BMW. When the seatbelts were fastened and the engine was humming, they started across town.
Lou's split-level rancher was in a modest section of Phoenix, on a tree-lined street. While many houses in the Valley of the Sun boasted stucco walls and tile roofs, with courtyards and rock gardens instead of lawns, Lou's was a simple brick affair with green shutters. There were flower beds and green grass in the front yard, though it was starting to look a little overgrown.
Hallie hesitated for a few moments, just sitting there in the driveway with the BMW still running, then switched off the ignition, pocketed the keys, and got out. Virgin Mary, she thought, remembering the scrawled letters on the key tag, and headed for the storage shed in the backyard. The door was padlocked, but Hallie knew the combination, and she opened it easily. Kiera and Kiley, having no interest in the shed where their grandfather had kept his lawnmower, an assortment of tools, and boxes of Christmas paraphernalia, among other things, raced toward the tire swing Lou had put up years before, for Hallie, and left their mother to her mysterious pursuits.
It took half an hour of dusty exploration, but Hallie finally located the nearly life-size plastic Nativity set that had graced the front yard every holiday season, from the Friday after Thanksgiving until the second of January. Each piece was swaddled in newspaper, and she unwrapped Joseph, a shepherd, and one of the Wise Men before coming at last to Mary.
Upending the statue on the cement floor, she found a metal cashbox wedged into the base. Stomach fluttering, she pulled it out, rewrapped Mary, and put her back with the other decorations. Then, after running her hands down the thighs of her jeans, she brought out the tagged key and turned the lock.
At first, the contents seemed innocuous -- documents, printouts downloaded from the Internet, newspaper clippings, a few murky Polaroid shots, their subjects not immediately discernible. Hallie closed the box, held it protectively in both hands as she stepped outside into the fresh air and sunlight.
Kiera and Kiley were playing on the tire swing, getting along for once, laughing. Hallie looked around, the hairs rising on the back of her neck, then made her way to the relative privacy of the covered patio, where Lou had probably grilled a million hot dogs and hamburgers over the years. She sat down at the picnic table, feeling weak in the knees, the box before her, and raised the lid again.
The computer printouts were maps to places in the desert, campgrounds mostly, and parks. Some were marked, in Lou's handwriting, with small, indented X's. The snapshots showed men in various bars, and other dark places, exchanging things, or just talking in earnest. Hallie recognized several of the men, and her flesh prickled.
She unfolded a document, smoothed it on the surface of the picnic table, and scanned the first page. It was a transcript, probably of a telephone conversation, and the subject was some kind of shipment, being brought in from Mexico. Hallie felt another sick quiver in the pit of her stomach. This was stuff she didn't want to know, and the names, many of them all-too-familiar, were ones she didn't want to recognize.
She looked over her shoulder, and was startled to see Joel standing by the swing, hands in the pockets of his chinos, chatting with the girls. Their faces were upturned, adoring. Hallie felt a sudden urge to race across the lawn, gather her children close, hustle them away. Instead, she froze, there where Lou had served so many summer meals, watching as her ex-husband looked up, met her gaze, and ambled toward her. His hands were still in his pockets.
He was just a few feet away when she found her voice. "What are you doing here?" she asked. Stupid question. His face was in some of the pictures, his name in the transcript. Jesus God, Lou, she thought, if you knew this stuff, why didn't you warn me?
She knew the answer, of course. Lou had been pursuing a major investigation, and he hadn't expected to die before it was completed. He wouldn't have compromised the case by discussing it with a civilian, even if that civilian was his stepdaughter, with children sired by one of the suspects.
"Just thought I'd see how you're doing this morning," Joel said. He was trying not to look at the open cashbox and the papers, but he didn't succeed. "What have we here?"
Hallie was surprised at how easily the lie sprang to her lips. She even managed a cordial smile. "Stocks, bonds, some appraisal photographs," she said. "It seems Lou left me something besides this house and his pension fund."
"Let's have a look," Joel suggested, as if he had every right.
Hallie shuffled everything back into the box, smoothly, and drew it toward her. "It's all pretty straightforward," she said. "I can handle it."
He frowned, and she got to her feet, cradling the box. Smiling.
"Why don't you and Barbara stop by the restaurant Saturday night?" she said, talking too fast, too eagerly. "I've got a new dish you might like to try. On the house, of course."
Joel arched an eyebrow, still watching the box. "Okay," he said, uncertainly. Then he rustled up a smile of his own. "I could take the kids for the day. Give you a little break."
A chill danced up Hallie's spine. "We have plans," she replied lightly. "Stop by the restaurant Saturday night, Joel."
He got to his feet.
"Girls!" Hallie called. "Come on. Time to go."
"Let me have the box, Hallie," Joel insisted, in a monotone.
"Another time," Hallie chimed. She'd never make it to the BMW, still parked in the driveway in front of the house, but Lou's old pickup was behind the shed, facing the alley fence, and the keys were probably in the ignition. Nobody in their right mind, Lou had always maintained, would steal that worthless truck, but he could always hope.
She started toward the girls, and the pickup truck, her strides long, her heart pounding in her throat. She shuffled her surprised daughters into the front seat of the old rig, tossed the box in after them, and scrambled behind the wheel. Joel was several yards behind her, but he was taller, and intent on the chase. Hallie had passed easily under the clotheslines, but Joel had gotten himself entangled, affording her precious moments to start the sputtering motor and push down the locks on the doors.
"Mommy," Kiera piped up. "What are you -- ?"
Hallie stepped on the clutch, shifted into first gear, and drove right into the board fence, knocking it down, jostling into the alley.
"Daddy is chasing us!" Kiley announced, looking back through the oval window. "Mommy, stop!"
Hallie shifted again, and barreled toward the end of the alley, picking up speed with every jostle and bump. A glance at the rearview mirror showed Joel standing in the alley, glaring after her and swearing. It wouldn't be long until he regained his senses and came after them, but Hallie had grown up in that neighborhood, and she knew every side street, every shortcut, and every dead end. By the time he got back to his car, she and the girls and the evidence Lou had gathered would be long gone.
Kiley tried again. "Mommy?"
Hallie took the corner on two wheels, tires screeching. "Fasten your seat belts, girls," she said. "We're going on a little trip."
The first thing she did, once they had left Phoenix far behind, was hide the cashbox.
Copyright © 2002 by Linda Lael Miller
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