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Nicole Ferris coasted the car to a stop on the shoulder. Her headlights shone on a two-lane black asphalt road that sliced through snow-dusted fields and disappeared into the mountains.
She pumped the gas pedal and cranked the ignition. "Come on, baby. You can do it."
The Escort coughed, but the engine didn't catch. In the glow of the dashboard lights, Nicole read the gas gauge. Empty? But that was impossible! Yesterday there was half a tank, and she hadn't gone anywhere but to work and back. How could she be riding on empty?
Realization dawned like a slap in the face. "Joey," she said.
This morning, Joey had borrowed her car to use while his BMW was getting an oil change. Joey Wentworth, her roommate, must have run her car completely out of gas. Damn his inconsiderate hide! She could just kill him!
This wasn't the first time - not even the second or the third time - that he'd shown himself to be an irresponsible, spoiled-brat, wannabe-artist, rich kid. But what could she do? Nicole couldn't break up with Joey, because he wasn't her boyfriend, only a roomie. She couldn't throw him out, because his family owned the cabin where they lived.
The solution was to pack her bags and move on, but the thought exhausted her. Staying here - in god-forsaken Elkhorn, Colorado - was a hundred times better than being on the run again.
Resigned, she cut the headlights, twisted her key from the ignition and stepped outside into the freezing cold. She started walking.
There were no phone booths, no taxis, not even an errant pickup truck. It was after eleven o'clock and nobody else was out this late on a weeknight in October, nobody but Nicole, and she was nothing more than a speck in this vast, vacant, southern Colorado landscape - a pathetic little speck wearing a red parka over her pink tunic and slacks uniform that was wilted and wrinkled after an eight-hour shift at the Elkhorn Café where the specialty of the house was fried. Fried potatoes. Fried chicken. Fried bread. After working there for five months, the stench of deep-fat grease clung to her skin, her clothes and her long blond braid.
Peering through the desolate dark, she estimated it was only three miles to the cabin, but she was already chilled. And tired. And hungry. There hadn't been time to eat during the hectic Monday-night football game with the Broncos on television.
They'd lost. Twenty-four to sixteen. And she took their defeat personally. Losers! We're all losers on a cold night when sunrise is nothing more than a distant unbelievable promise. She had to keep slogging onward. Icy wetness seeped inside her sneakers. Her clammy socks twined around her toes as she trudged down the winding dirt road that was half frozen and half slush.
Finally she saw the light from the kitchen window of their cabin. Joey's BMW was parked under a stand of Ponderosa pines, which meant he was here - warm and cozy and unaware of the inconvenience he'd caused her.
Yanking her keys from her purse, Nicole hurried toward the red-trimmed log cabin. But there was no need to unlock the door. It stood slightly ajar, letting the heat escape. How typically wasteful! How typically Joey! She marched inside. "Joey, you little creep! You -"
Her voice echoed in the L-shaped living room. She hit the switch by the door. The overhead light shone on chaos. The bookshelves were pulled down, coffee tables overturned, magazines and books scattered all over the place. The sofa lay on its back. The logs by the moss-rock fireplace were strewn like spilled matchsticks. The TV and VCR sat in the middle of the braided oval area rug.
They'd been robbed! But why was the television set here? Were the robbers still in the house?
Nicole listened hard. She heard nothing but the sound of her own labored breathing.
She ought to run to the neighbor's, but nobody lived nearby. The cabins in this area were usually vacant in winter. And Joey's car was parked out front. He might still be in the house. The robbers might have hurt him, left him unconscious. She had to find him. "Joey? Are you here?"
Stepping over a pile of shredded magazines and a sofa pillow that had been slashed open to expose the white batting, Nicole edged toward the kitchen, ready to pivot and run if she encountered anyone.
The kitchen had not been disturbed. The tile countertops shone clean and tidy. The only mess came from her own muddy footprints on the patterned linoleum floor.
She tore open a drawer and pulled out a carving knife to use as a weapon. Holding the steel blade in front of her, she lifted the receiver from the wall phone and punched in the emergency numbers.
After three rings, a male voice answered, "Dispatch."
"Is this 9-1-1?"
"Sure is. What's the problem?"
"This is Nicole Ferris. I live at the Wentworth cabin, and I'm -"' She was scared and angry. Hot and cold at the same time. She'd felt this way so many times before. A terrible apprehension crawled up her spine.
"Is this Nicole from the café?" the dispatcher asked.
"We've been robbed." She fought the quaver in her voice. "Everything's torn apart."
"Calm down," he said. "Is anybody hurt?"
"I don't know."
"Is someone there with you?"
"I don't think so." The cabin felt empty. "Should I look around?"
"Don't go anywhere. Give me your address."
"Seven-three-three-seven Coyote Road."
"Stay on the line," he ordered. "I'm calling the sheriff."
Over the open phone line, she heard the dispatcher's mumbled conversation. He must have been listening to a country-western radio station because, in the background, she also heard the classic Patsy Cline song, "Who's Sorry Now?"
I am. She shuddered. What if this vandalism wasn't the work of robbers? What if Derek had found her?
A sob caught in the back of her throat. She'd escaped from her husband, had fled from him, hidden from him. She couldn't face Derek again, couldn't stand up to his abuse. Oh God, what if he'd been here? What if he'd found Joey and punished him?
Her anxiety heightened. She had to protect Joey. He wasn't big or tough. He was sensitive. An artist. Though his behavior was annoying and immature, she thought of him as the younger brother she never had.
"Nicole, I'm back," the dispatcher said. "The sheriff is on his way. You're going to be okay."
Excerpted from Restless Spirit by Cassie Miles Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 10, 2013
Posted November 4, 2009
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