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Jake Vernelli flicked his windshield wipers to high and tightened his grip on the steering wheel of his 1969 GMC pickup. On a pleasant summer night, there'd be another hour of daylight but there wasn't anything pleasant about this night. It was dark and ugly and it matched Jake's mood perfectly.
When Chase had described Wyattville, Minnesota, his old friend had been characteristically kind. It's a little remote.
Remote? Hell, all signs of civilization had faded away when Jake had left the interstate for a bumpy, narrow, two-lane road. More than once, he'd considered making one big U-turn and pointing the nose of his truck back toward Minneapolis. But Chase's telephone call from last week was fresh enough that he could still hear the desperation in the man's voice.
Please, Jake. It's only for six weeks. I wouldn't ask if I had any other options.
And that was fact. In all the years they'd known each other, Chase had never once asked and had offered more times than Jake could count. The most recent offer had come two months ago, just days after Jake had tried to turn in his badge.
He'd told Chase he was fine, that the gunshot wound was healing nicely, and that he'd put Marcy's funeral behind him. It was the first time he'd ever lied to his friend. But what was he supposed to say? That he thought about his dead partner every single day and wondered just how he'd missed that she was in trouble?
Could he admit that he'd thought about how miserably lucky he'd been that he'd only gotten a bullet in his leg while young Officer Howard, who'd had the bad luck to get caught in the crossfire between him and Marcy, had lost his life? Should he disclose that in the middle of the night, when his soul felt most tortured, that he questioned whether it had been for naught? Marcy had died but there would still be drugs on the street, in the schoolyard, everywhere. Should he confess that he wasn't sure he could make a big enough difference anymore?
It was better to lie.
And pretend that he was moving on.
Jake stretched and grabbed the flashlight that had slipped into the crack between the bench seat and the passenger-side door. He pointed it at the directions he'd received just that afternoon. Once satisfied that his navigation was sound, he flicked the light off and glanced ahead.
Fifty feet in front of him, a deer stood in the middle of the damn road.
He flattened the palm of his hand on the horn, pressed his foot hard on the brake, and felt his heart jump when the back tires of his truck lost traction on the wet road.
The bed of the truck slammed into the guardrail, and suddenly he was rolling. His seat belt jerked tight and something, maybe the flashlight, struck him a glancing blow on his chin. The truck rolled a second time and then stopped so suddenly that Jake cracked the left side of his forehead on something.
"Damn it." He fumbled for the interior light, switched it on and took stock. The cab looked fine, and he felt ridiculously pleased that Veronica was built like a tank. The only problem was, she had metal trim around the doors, and he was pretty sure that was what he'd cracked his head against. He flipped down his visor and looked into the small mirror. The area above his left eye was already swelling, and in the dim interior light he could see fresh blood oozing from a thin cut.
He peered out the windshield. His headlights were still on, but all he could see through the driving rain was two-feet-high grass. Everywhere. He'd landed in some kind of gulley. His truck was in Drive and the engine was running, but he wasn't going anywhere.
He pulled his cell phone out of his shirt pocket, turned it on and waited. It beeped twice and then the screen went dark. He shook it, turned it on again and met with similar results.
The hinterlands evidently didn't get cell phone service.
He shoved the truck into Park, pulled the key and unbuckled his seat belt. Using his flashlight, he saw that there was solid earth reaching halfway up the door. He scooted across the seat and looked. Same damn thing.
He opened his glove compartment, retrieved his gun and stuck it into the waistband of his pants. Then he pulled his dark green rain poncho out from underneath the seat, shook out the wrinkles with one sharp flick of his wrist and slipped the thin plastic over his head. Finally, using the butt of the flashlight as a battering ram, he knocked out a perfectly good windshield and crawled out.
Once he stood on Veronica's hood, he realized that it was a mere foot aboveground. It was going to take a tow truck and somebody who knew what they were doing to get him out of there. The wind took his breath away and the rain beat at him as thunder rumbled and lightning streaked across the dark sky. It was a horrible night to be out, but waiting for someone to pass by wasn't much of a plan. He hadn't seen another car for the past half hour.
Before long some animal would probably mosey by and eat him. He pulled up his hood and started walking.
Tara Thompson parked her twelve-year-old van in the dark garage, thankful that she'd managed to keep the beast on the slick roads. It had been raining hard when she'd left the cafe and harder still just seconds ago, when she'd jumped out to open the garage door. Shivering in her wet clothes, she pulled down the heavy wood door and stood underneath the small overhang the roof offered. She could barely see her farmhouse, just thirty feet away.
Taking a deep breath, she sprinted. She took the two steps in one leap, yanked open the screen door, unlocked the interior door and threw herself inside. Heart racing, feeling almost giddy, she leaned against her back door and tried to catch her breath.
She could hear the rain pound against the new shingles that her landlord had laboriously laid just weeks earlier. When she flipped the light switch next to the door and saw that the only thing dripping on the kitchen floor was her, she smiled. Maybe Henry had been right when he promised that her bucket days were over.
She kicked off her wet shoes just as a bolt of lightning hit close enough to shake her house. The lights went out without so much as a flicker. She stood in the dark, waiting, hoping. Minutes ticked off and giddiness seeped away, replaced by grim determination.
Reaching into the cupboard above the stove, she grabbed a candle, then matches. It took just seconds to locate the tall glass she'd left drying upside down next to the sink.
She righted it, stuck a candle in it and on her second try got the match to spark.
She held the glass above her head and peered into the cupboard. She found four more candles and pulled them all out, hoping they would be enough. In the fourteen months she'd been living in eastern Minnesota, the electricity had gone out at least three times. Six months ago, during a February ice storm, it had been off for almost forty-eight hours.
Hot shower came off the to-do list. No electricity meant no power to the pump on the well, which meant no running water. The best she could do was peel off the clothes she'd been wearing for the past twelve hours. She picked up the glass, and as she walked up the narrow stairway to the second floor, the slim candle swayed from side to side, bouncing light off the pale walls.
In her bedroom, she undressed. Even her bra and panties were wet. She scooped up her clothes and tossed them into the hamper, feeling the pull in her shoulders. It had been three days since Donny had up and quit. She needed to get a new dishwasher hired. The extra work was taking its toll.
In the mirror, she saw the shadow of unpaid invoices and half-completed order forms on the corner of her old desk. She'd planned on catching up earlier in the week and had told herself on the way home that tonight was it. No lights meant no guilt about putting the nagging paperwork aside. She smiled, blew out the candle and flopped down on the bed.
The wind was even stronger now and the lightning and thunder almost simultaneous, telling her that the full brunt of the storm had hit. The rain had turned to hail and it crashed against the windows as if someone was throwing buckets of marbles against the small house.
It was a cacophony of noisewild and bold and oddly rhythmic. She closed her eyes, content to think of nothing, content to let the strain of the busy day slip away. However, minutes later, more asleep than awake, a pounding on her back door had her jerking up in bed.
Nobody ever came to her back door.
That is, nobody except Henry. She took a breath and felt the tightness in her chest ease up. Her landlord had stopped by the restaurant shortly after the noon rush and promised that he'd be over later to fix the loose tile on her bathroom floor. That was before the sky had unzipped and rained on her parade.
He should not be out on a night like this. She scrambled off the bed and slipped on the pale blue cotton robe that hung on the back of her bedroom door. On the way out, she grabbed the glass and unlit candle off her dresser.
Good Lord. She loved the old fool like the father she'd lost, but this was ridiculous. He'd be soaked. Probably get pneumonia and she'd never hear the end of it. "If you don't stop beating the heck out of my screen door, you'll be fixing that, too," she mumbled. The stairway was pitch-black; she grabbed the railing with her free hand and stepped carefully.
Once downstairs, she stopped just long enough to light the candle and set it on the coffee table. "Hang on," she yelled. She realized he hadn't heard her over the storm when the pounding continued. She went to the door and pulled back the curtain on the window. He was hunched over, wearing his ratty rain poncho. She fumbled with the lock and finally whipped open the door. Wind and rain blew in.
"Are you crazy?" she yelled, yanking on Henry's sleeve. She pulled him into the house. At least the man had enough sense to put his hood up. "Alice is going to skin you alive," she said.
Tara jumped back, knocking into the hall table. And in the next second, when he turned and the light from the candle on the coffee table caught his profile, she knew exactly who was crazy.
She'd let a stranger into her house. He was big and broad-shouldered, and from what she could see of his face, he wasn't happy. Then he pushed his hood back and she saw bloody raw skin on his forehead.
She screamed and ran. He managed to catch her before she got through the front door. She had it open just inches when he reached over her shoulder and slammed it shut with the palm of his hand. Whirling around, she thrust an elbow toward his face.
"Calm down," he said.
She would not give innot this time. She shoved and kicked but it was like hitting a damn wall.
"Stop it," he said, using both hands to grab her flailing arms. With one hand, he pinned her arms over her head. With his other free hand, he grasped her chin. "You're going to hurt yourself," he warned.
She didn't want to beg. But fear robbed her voice of strength. "Let go of me," she whispered.
When he didn't, she brought her knee up. He managed to twist out of the way. Then he wrapped an arm around her middle, picked her up so that her feet were kicking wildly in the air, carried her five feet over to the couch and dumped her on it.
She expected him to fall on top of her, but instead he backed up a couple steps, practically tripping over the coffee table in his haste to get away. Scooting to the corner of the couch, she pulled her old robe tight. She felt naked and vulnerable, and she thought she might throw up.
Why hadn't she been more careful? She'd been so cautious for fourteen months and now, in one instant, it was all for nothing.
Never taking his eyes off her, he moved sideways, far enough that he could flip the switch on the wall. When nothing happened, he looked at the candle and she saw bleak acceptance in his eyes. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, turned it on and swept the space that served as a combined kitchen and family room. His gaze rested on the sink and she knew he saw the lone clean plate and coffee cup.
It didn't matter. She wasn't going to make it easy for him. The minute he came closer, she was going to grab the lamp and hit him with it. She was going to use her fingernails, her teeth, anything she could.
But when he moved, it wasn't forward. He sank down on the love seat. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to scare you. I looked in the garage window and saw a van. I thought somebody might be home."
"Get out of my house," she said, her voice low.
"I was in an accident." He pointed to his forehead. "My truck is in a ditch, a deep one, about a mile from here. I'm not sure how badly it's damaged. My cell didn't work. All I want is to use your telephone to call a garage so that I can get the son of a" he hesitated "gun out of there."
Could he be telling the truth? She held her arm to her side, the rough, scarred skin pressing against her ribs, separated only by the thin robe. Rain always made the bone ache. Getting pushed up against the front door hadn't helped.
She'd run on instinct. She'd fought when cornered. That brought her some comfort. As hard as she'd fought, however, she knew the stranger was big enough and strong enough that he could have easily hurt her. But instead, he'd backed off and was giving her a chance to calm down. Was it some kind of trick?
Or was it possible that he hadn't come looking for her, that Michael hadn't sent him? That he'd simply crashed his vehicle, knocked his head in the process, and her house had been the first he'd stumbled upon? "Where was the accident?"
"A mile or so south. I'm on my way to Wyattville," he continued. "Please tell me that I'm headed in the right direction."
She wasn't telling him anything. Not until she knew why he was here. "What's your name?" she demanded.
"Jake Vernelli." He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wallet. From his poncho pocket, he pulled out what appeared to be a hastily folded sheet of paper. After flipping open the wallet, he tried to smooth out the crumpled paper.
She leaned forward. The picture on the license was of him, sans bloody forehead. With a practiced eye for taking in details quickly, she scanned it. Dark hair, olive skin, classic Italian appearance. Six-two, 190 pounds. He'd be thirty-three in two weeks, making him almost exactly a year older than her. The name on it was Jake Vernelli.
She shifted her gaze to the paper. It was a fax sent from the law offices of Chase Montgomery. Chase had been elected mayor the previous year and when she scanned the fax, she remembered the gossip she'd heard at the restaurant just that morning. The mayor had called a childhood friend and arranged for him to fill in for Chief Wilks, who'd had a heart attack and then bypass surgery.
"Do you know Chief Wilks?" he asked.
She nodded. She liked the chief; everybody did. But she'd never really felt comfortable around him. Michael had gotten to the police once before, he could do it again.
"I'm taking his place for six weeks," he said.
Tara's stomach tightened. "So you're a cop?"
"That's right." He swallowed deliberately. "Given the circumstances, I would think you might consider that a positive."
Hardly. She was living way outside the law.