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The wind howled, throwing ice and rain against the windows and roof of Maggie Tennyson's attic apartment. She shivered, grabbing a thick flannel shirt and tossing it over her fitted T-shirt. It was a good night to stay inside, snuggled up in front of a glowing fire, reading a book, drinking cocoa, maybe even watching a movie.
Too bad that wasn't an option.
She grabbed her duffel bag and the satchel that contained the day's ungraded tests, slipped into her coat and hurried out the door and down a flight of stairs that led to the Victorian bungalow's spacious foyer. The tinny sound of the television drifted from the living room, its flickering blue light splashing across the hardwood floor as Maggie tiptoed past the open door.
The old wood floor creaked beneath her feet, and she hurried forward, turning the doorknob and pulling open the front door. Cold air blew in, carrying icy winter rain and the sharp, crisp scent of pine needles.
"Maggie Mae? Where in the world are you going?" Edith Lancaster peered out of the living room, her eyes flashing with curiosity.
"Out to the house," Maggie responded, closing the door and turning to face her landlady. She didn't have time for explanations and conversation, but trying to dodge either would be like waving a red flag at a bull. Better to give Edith a few answers inside the house than to be followed out into the rain and waylaid on the front porch where anyone could see her.
"On a night like tonight? Are you sure that's a good idea?" Edith stepped into the foyer, her sharp brown eyes taking in everything. The bulging duffel. The satchel. Maggie's faded jeans and wool coat, her gloves and hat.
"It's a long weekend. I figure I can get quite a bit done on the house over the next four days." Could Edith hear the slight trembling of Maggie's voice? Could she hear the fear in it?
"Maybe, but I still don't think going out to the Miller monstrosity on a night like tonight is a good idea."
"It's not the Millers' place anymore, Edith. It's mine, and if I don't get some work done on it, I won't be out of your hair by Christmas." It was as good a reason as any to leave at nine o'clock at night during a wintry storm. The breaking news story about Nicolas Samuels was an even better one. No. Not Nicholas Samuels. Eli Dougherty. A child missing for nearly five years and now reunited with his father. Eli and the woman who'd called herself his mother had shown up in town a month before school began. They'd made no friends, had taken no interest in the community. Until Eli walked into the classroom where Maggie worked as a teacher's aide, he had been a complete stranger. It hadn't taken long for that to change. There'd been something about the solemn little boy that had tugged at Maggie's heart, and she'd spent extra time helping him with assignments and encouraging him to take part in playground activities. She'd also listened, really listened, to what he'd had to say about his life before he'd moved to Deer Park.
And now Eli's story was running on every local and national news station in the country.
Was that what Edith had been watching?
Maggie didn't dare ask.
No one could know about her part in the unfolding drama. Not Edith. Not Maggie's friends and coworkers. And most definitely not any of the reporters who were scouring Deer Park, Washington, searching for anyone willing to talk about the little boy and the woman who had been posing as his mother for five years.
"You've never been in my hair, and you know it. You're one of the best renters I've ever had, and I'll be happy to extend the rental contract for a few more weeks. Even months if you need the extra time," Edith said, and Maggie blinked, trying to refocus her attention on the conversation.
"You're sweet, but you and I both know that you have another renter lined up to move in the day after I leave." They'd discussed it several times in the month since Maggie had purchased the property outside of town.
"The renter is my grandson, and he can wait a few extra weeks. So, why don't you stay home for the night? We'll have popcorn and watch television together. Every single station is running the story about that little boy who was taken from his father five years ago. Can you believe he's been here for months and no one knew?"
"No. I can't."
"You've got to wonder how the police finally figured it out. One of the news stations said an anonymous source contacted them with information. Anonymous? Who stays anonymous unless they have something to hide? That's what I'm wondering? Maybe—"
"I've really got to go, Edith," Maggie cut in, her heart racing, her stomach churning. If Edith was asking those questions, plenty of other people would be, too. Journalists, newspaper reporters, television news anchors. People who would dig for answers until they found them. Until they found Maggie.
"I suppose you're right. If you're set on going, you shouldn't wait any longer. The storm is supposed to keep up all night, and the roads are only going to get more slippery. Be careful out there, you here?"
"I will be."
"When will you be back?"
Or maybe she'd be halfway to somewhere else by then. Some other town, some other identity. Living a new life. Starting over.
Hot tears filled her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She'd been through plenty in the past few years, and she'd survived. She'd survive this, too.
She jogged to her car, ice bouncing off her head and coat as she threw her duffel and satchel into the trunk. Edith was right. It wasn't a good night to be out. Maggie wanted to be tucked away in her attic apartment, grading tests. She wanted to take Edith up on the offer of popcorn and T V. More than anything she wanted to go back in time, make better choices, be the person she was now, then.
"But, you can't, so get over it. You made your mistakes and you're going to have to live with the consequences. Or die with them," she muttered as she pulled out onto the road.
Ice pinged off the car windows and bounced off the road, settling onto grass and trees and covering the asphalt with a layer of slippery moisture. The car fishtailed on the slick surface, and Maggie gripped the steering wheel with sweaty palms. She'd grown up in Florida, and even after three years of living in the Northwest, she still wasn't used to driving in icy weather.
So, why are you? Why not stay home instead of heading out into the storm? God has taken care of you for this long. Do you really think He's going to turn His back on you now?
Of course, she didn't.
But there was nothing wrong with being cautious. That's what going out to her country property was. Caution. Not lack of faith. Not fear.
"Right. Keep on telling yourself that, Maggie. Maybe by the end of the weekend, you'll believe it," she mumbled, her heart pounding frantically as the car fishtailed again. It had been a long day. A long few days. No way did she want to add a car accident to the stress. She needed to slow down, take a deep breath and concentrate on what she was doing.
She eased her foot off the gas, barely coasting as she turned onto the country lane that led to her new home. Tall pines and broad oaks shimmered in the darkness, dancing in the gusting wind and waving Maggie on. Years ago, someone had planted those oak trees. Someone had tended the fallow fields that lay beyond them. Now the five-mile stretch that led to Maggie's property was dark and lonely.
Maggie didn't care. The old farmhouse was every thing she'd ever wanted. Large and airy with big rooms and turn-of-the-century charm, the place had been abandoned years ago. Would probably still be abandoned if Maggie hadn't gone on a country drive and seen it. Run-down, used up, lonely. Those were the things she'd thought when she'd looked at it, and she'd wanted to fix it up. Give it new life.
She'd thought she'd have plenty of time to do that.
And she would have if Eli hadn't walked into her life.
But he had, and everything had changed.
The car slid to the left, the tires spinning uselessly on ice and slush. Maggie tried to steer into the turn, but this time the car couldn't be righted. It slid across the road and nose-dived into a shallow ditch.
"Perfect." Maggie shoved open the door and scrambled out into the storm, shivering as cold wind speared through her coat and settled into her bones.
The front end of the car was tilted down, the wheels sunk deep into icy muck. If there was damage, Maggie couldn't see it, but she couldn't see a way to get the car out, either.
She pulled out her cell phone, dialed the local garage that had kept her aging Ford running for the past three years. It took several tries before someone answered, and Maggie frowned when she was told that it could take hours for the tow truck to arrive.
She could sit in the car and wait until then, or she could walk the rest of the way to the house. She stepped out into the street and stared down the road, trying to figure out how far she was from the farmhouse. There were no visible landmarks, just more pine and oak trees, more ice and silvery rain, but she was sure she'd traveled a few miles before she slid into the ditch. At most, she had another two miles to go. An easy walk on any other night, but a slippery one during a late-fall storm.
Still, she'd rather slip and slide all the way to the house than sit in the car imagining shadowy figures sneaking up from behind.
Imagining him sneaking up from behind.
She shuddered, grabbing her duffel and satchel from the trunk. The wind gusted, shaking needles and branches, the sound shivering along Maggie's nerves as she picked her way along the dark road. She'd never been afraid of the dark, never much worried about things that went bump in the night, but the storm gave life to the darkness, whipping shadows, bending pine boughs, whispering and whistling through the trees.
And no matter how much she told herself otherwise, no matter how much she reminded herself that she wasn't alone on the dark country road, that God was with her, guiding her, protecting her, Maggie was afraid.
Bright light speared through the darkness as the sound of a car engine mixed with the howl of wind and pinging ice. Maggie jumped to the side of the road, her feet slipping out from under her as she scrambled to move out of the way of the approaching vehicle. She went down hard, her breath leaving on a painful whoosh.
A car door slammed, footsteps crunched on ice, and Maggie twisted and managed to push to her feet, to face the person backlit by headlights.
Tall. Large muscular build. A man. She was sure of that. A hat covered hair that might have been any color, but Maggie imagined it was midnight black.
Sinfully full lips that could smile or snarl depending on his mood.
For a moment, Maggie let panic take her, let it spear through her stomach and her mind until the only thought she had was escape. She took a step back, her feet slipping in ice and mud.
"Careful. You don't want to end up on the ground again."
The deep voice didn't belong to Derrick, and the hand that wrapped around her wrist, holding her steady as she regained her balance, was firm without being tight, controlled rather than cruel.
"You're right. Thanks." Her voice shook, and she cleared her throat, trying to quiet her frantic, panicked breathing.
"You're Maggie Tennyson, right?"
A journalist. He had to be. Somehow he'd found out about Maggie's part in reuniting Eli with his father, and he'd tracked her down. It wasn't good, but it was better than the alternative—Derrick standing in front of her, ready to mete out the vengeance he'd promised more than three years ago. "That's right."
"I thought so. Your landlady said you were heading to your country home. She seemed really concerned that you wouldn't make it. Something about threadbare tires and a lightweight car."
"I guess she was right to be worried, because the car ended up in a ditch," Maggie said, surprised that Edith would give out information to a stranger. But then, Edith did like being in the loop, and she'd love being part of one of Deer Park's biggest-ever news stories.
"Fortunately, mine is made for this kind of weather. How about I give you a ride to your place?"
"My mother always told me not to accept rides from strangers, and since I'm not far from home, I think I'll listen to her advice. Thanks, though. I appreciate the offer." She kept her voice light as she started to turn away.
"Maybe it'll help if I introduce myself. I'm Kane Dougherty. Eli's father."
Eli's father—the man who'd been searching for his missing child for five years and whose impassioned plea for his son's return had been replaying in the news since word of the father and son's reunion had broken that morning—was standing on the country road that led to Maggie's house.
And Maggie wished desperately that he wasn't.
"I asked the sheriff not to tell you who I was."
"And I told him that I needed to know. You brought me the miracle I've been praying for, and I wanted to thank you in person."
"I've never needed thanks for doing the right thing, Mr. Dougherty."
"Kane. And you may not need thanks, but I need to give it. How about I start by making sure you get to your place in one piece?"
There was no sense in refusing the ride, no way to undo the fact that Kane Dougherty was standing in front of her, so she nodded, trying to smile past the nerves that knotted her stomach. "Thanks. It's not far."
"It wouldn't matter if it was a thousand miles. I 'd still be happy to do it." The words were suave and easy, the kind of thing a player might say to impress a lady, but there was sincerity in Kane's tone that Maggie couldn't deny.
He opened the car door, and the interior light went on, highlighting the black leather seats and the young boy who sat in the back. As always, Eli was still and watchful, his pale freckled face anxious and wary.
"Hello, Nicolas. Or do you want me to call you Eli now?"
"Eli, I guess." But he didn't look happy about it, and Maggie wondered how the transition was going for father and son.