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Nowhere To Hide
By RaeAnne Thayne
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe had trespassers.
Two of them.
Dressed for jogging in shorts and a T-shirt, Special Agent Gage McKinnon eased open his front door just a crack and peered out into the small front garden of the house he rented.
What were they up to? He could hear them out there, laughing and whispering together, but he couldn't make out the words in the crisp high mountain air of the Park City summer morning.
He didn't think they were dangerous, but if he'd learned anything in his thirty-five years, he'd learned not to underestimate the female of the species. These two looked to be about three or four. One was slightly smaller than the other by a few inches and a little more round but besides that, they could have been twins. Same dark, curly hair, same flashing brown eyes, same little ski slopes for noses.
Where did they come from? And what were they up to?
He put his plans for a run up the mountainside temporarily on hold and watched them for a few moments longer. Ah, now he figured it out. Each of the girls had her pink nightie hitched up into a sort of basket, revealing small olive legs and matching Barbie panties. Into their makeshift carriers, they were both piling what looked like just about every single flower in his yard, roots and all.
Daisies, geraniums, purple lavender. They plucked some of each.
He didn't care about the flowers. They could have the whole garden, as far as he was concerned. But he had a feeling his landlady wouldn't see things the same way. In the month he'd lived here, she had been by at least three times a week to baby these and the even bigger garden in the back. He figured this wanton pilfering would not make her happy.
Gage opened the door wider and walked out onto the porch. The sun had barely crept over the horizon of the surrounding mountains with their wide ski runs, bare of snow now but still a pale contrast to the dark evergreens covering the slopes.
The early-morning air was cool. He hadn't spent much time in Utah since his childhood but it hadn't taken him long to remember that temperatures in these high mountain valleys could often dip below freezing at night, even in June.
These girls weren't exactly dressed for cool weather.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
Two dark heads whipped around as his voice sliced through the still morning. The smaller girl looked suddenly terrified, her eyes and her little mouth both open wide. She clutched her nightie with one hand and what looked like a stuffed monkey with the other as she edged slightly behind the other girl, who gave him a winsome smile that had most likely been her ticket out of far worse trouble than some plucked flowers.
"Hi, mister. We're picking flowers for our mama. Today is her birthday. She's old."
He bit his cheek at that piece of frank information and summoned a scowl. "These are my flowers. You should have asked me first."
The older girl frowned. "Mrs. Jensen said they were her flowers. She said we could pick a few for Mama's birthday."
Mrs. Jensen was his dour, taciturn landlady, who had yet to unbend enough to smile at him since he moved in.
She owned the house next door, too, he remembered, a virtual match to his small, wood-sided cottage on this row of old dwellings that traced their existence back to the days when Park City was a rough and rugged mining camp, not a high-society resort town.
He had found it odd that Ruth Jensen had surrounded his cottage with this lush, fairy-tale garden while leaving its twin to sit squarely in a bare yard of crab grass and empty flowerbeds but she explained that she'd only recently purchased the house next door and hadn't had time for landscaping yet.
In the last few days, he'd noticed the first signs of life over there - lights on at night, an older model Honda parked out front, a few toys in the yard. Looks like he was meeting some of his new neighbors.
"You're sure Mrs. Jensen said you could pick the flowers?" He had a tough time picturing her giving these little urchins free rein to romp through her beloved garden, but the older girl nodded vigorously.
"She said it would be all right just this once since today is Mama's birthday."
"Where is your mother?"
"She's still asleep. We're gonna s'prise her."
Their mother ought to be a little more aware of what her two girls were up to. She ought to at least put better locks on the door or something so they couldn't go wandering around town on their own.
"What about your dad?"
The older girl sent him a sad look. "Our daddy's in heaven. We miss him a lot."
Now what was he supposed to say to that? At a loss, Gage glanced up and down the street. The three of them were the only thing moving through the early morning except for a few songbirds flitting through the trees and a plump striped cat skulking across a yard.
This was a quiet neighborhood, but he knew that wouldn't make a damn bit of difference to a child predator looking for prey. Quiet neighborhoods in small towns were often more attractive hunting grounds than those that bustled with people. Parents could more easily be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking nothing could touch them here, that their children faced no threat more serious than the occasional skinned knee from crashing on their bikes.
But no place was truly safe. He knew that far better than most.
"My name's Gaby and my sister's name is Anna," the little girl confided into the silence. "I'm five years old but Anna's only three. She doesn't talk very much, but Mama says I talk enough for both of us so that's okay. My real name's Gabriella but Mama calls me Gaby because she says that's what I am. What's your name, mister?"
Their mother needed to have a serious talk with them about stranger danger. This little chatterbox had just handed him all the information anyone needed to earn their trust.
"You're nice, Mr. McKinnon."
"Uh, thanks." Not too many people said that about him. He wasn't sure he liked it. "You two ought to go on inside now. I think you've got enough flowers, don't you? And pretty soon your mother will wake up and start looking for you."
"Okay. Anna's feet are cold. This grass is wet and icky."
"That's what shoes are for," he pointed out.
Gabriella just giggled and even Anna gave him a shy smile, then they raced across the yard to the house next door. The older girl paused on the porch and waved at him, then they both slipped inside.
He watched to make sure they closed the door tightly behind them, then took off down the street toward the trailhead he'd discovered a few weeks before.
He ought to definitely have a talk with the mother, warn her about letting two cute little girls roam free where any kind of sick bastard could get to them.
He could tell her stories that would give the lady nightmares for the rest of her life. After ten years in the FBI's CAC division - Crimes Against Children - he had plenty of them to share. Hell, he didn't even have to dig into any of the cases he had worked over the years to scare her senseless. All he had to do was tell her about Charlotte.
He reached the trailhead and ran up the steep dirt trail faster than his usual pace, grateful for the physical exertion to take his mind off the sudden, searing memory of his little sister's cherubic face.
Excerpted from Nowhere To Hide by RaeAnne Thayne Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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