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The knock on the door, as always, caused Corinne Farland's heart to skip a beat. Some lessons, once learned, could never be unlearned.
But after a year in Conard County, she found it a little easier to go to the front of the house. As always, she twitched the curtain aside at the front window by the door and looked out. She recognized Gage Dalton instantly, with his scarred face and his sheriff's uniform. Gage was her main protector these days.
She hurried to disengage the alarm system, then opened the door and smiled, an expression that sometimes still felt awkward on her face. "Hi, Gage."
He smiled back, a crooked expression as the burn scar on one side of his face caused one side of his mouth to hitch oddly. "Hi, Cory. Got a minute?"
"For you, always." She let him in and asked if he'd like some coffee.
"I'm coffeed out," he said, still smiling. "Too many cups of Velma's brew and my stomach starts reminding me I'm mortal." Velma was the dispatcher at the sheriff's office, a woman of indeterminate age who made coffee so strong few people could finish a single cup. The deputies, however, sucked it down by the pot.
She invited him into her small living room, and he perched on the edge of her battered recliner, his tan Stetson in his hands.
"How are things?" he asked.
"Okay." Not entirely true, maybe never true again, but the bleak desert of her heart and soul were not things she trotted out. Not for anyone.
"Emma mentioned something to me." Emma was his wife, the county librarian, a woman Cory admired and liked. "She said you were a bit tight financially."
Cory felt her cheeks heat. "That wasn't for distribution."
Gage smiled. "Husband-and-wife privilege. It doesn't go any further, okay?"
She tried to smile back and hoped she succeeded. Things were indeed tight. Her salary as a grocery-store clerk had been tight from the beginning, but now because times were hard, they'd asked everyone to take a cut in hours. Her cut had pushed her to the brink, where canned soup often became her only meal of the day.
Gage shook his head. "I'll never in a million years understand how they work this witness protection program."
Cory bit her lip. She didn't like to discuss that part, the part where her husband, a federal prosecutor, had become the target of a drug gang he was going after. The part where a man had burst into her house one night and killed him. The part where the feds had said that for her own protection she had to change her identity and move far away from everything and everyone she knew and loved.
"They do the best they can," she said finally.
"Not enough. It's not enough to buy you a house, give you a few bucks, get you a job and then leave you to manage. Not after what you've been through."
"There was some insurance." Almost gone now, though, and she was clinging to the remains in case of an emergency. She'd already had a few of those with this house they'd given her, and it had eaten into what little she had. "And they did do more for me than most." Like a minor plastic surgery to change her nose, which caused an amazing transformation to her face, and the high-tech alarm system that protected her day and night.
"Well," he said, "I'd like to make a suggestion."
"A friend of a friend just arrived in town. He's looking for a place to stay awhile that's not a motel, but he's not ready to rent an apartment. Do you think you could consider taking a roomer? You don't have to feed him, just give him your extra bedroom."
She thought about that. There was a bedroom upstairs, untouched and unused. It had a single bed, a dresser and a chair, here when she had moved in. Her own bedroom was downstairs, so she wouldn't have this guy next door to her at all times.
But there were other things, darker fears. "Gage "
"I know. It's hard to trust after where you've been. But I checked him out. Twenty years in the navy, all documented. Enough medals to paper a wall. You've met Nate Tate, haven't you?"
"Of course." She'd met the former sheriff. He might have retired, but apparently he still made it his job to know everyone in the county. She'd even had dinner with him and his wife a few times at their house. "Of course."
"Well, this guy is a friend of his son's. I don't know if you've met Seth Hardin."
She shook her head.
"Well, that's a story for another day. But Seth is a good sort, and he suggested this guy come here for a while to decompress."
"Decompress?" She didn't know if she liked the sound of that. "I don't know "
"I'm not asking you to babysit." Gage smiled again. "This guy is quite capable of looking after himself. He just needs some time away. A change of scene. And he's not a talker. I doubt you'll know he's in the house most of the time."
"I'll think about it." But she had to admit, she trusted Gage, and she needed the money.
"How about I bring him inside and introduce you?"
Fear jammed into her throat. Every new person represented risk. Every single one. Hiding had become her raison d'etre, and each time she had to meet someone new, the experience resurrected old fears.
"Let me get him," Gage said before she could argue. "He's in my car."
She wanted to scream for him not to do this, but she sat frozen, her fingers instinctively going to her side where the scar from the bullet still sometimes hurt. Where was her will? Her ability to say no? She seemed to have lost that on one dark night a year ago. Ever since, she had moved through her days like an automaton. Doing what was expected, pretending she cared. The truth was that the only thing she ever really felt anymore was fear. And grief. Sometimes fury.
She heard Gage limp back onto the porch, and with him
came a considerably heavier tread. She rose, an instinct these days, not out of courtesy, but out of a need to be able to flee if necessary.
First she saw Gage, but forgot him instantly as she looked at one of the biggest men she had ever seen. He must have been at least five inches over six feet, and even wrapped in a chambray shirt and jeans, he looked to be built out of concrete. Powerful. Strong. Overwhelming.
Scariest of all was the absolute lack of expression on his face. It was a hard face and appeared as if it would yield to nothing at all. His eyes were as black as chips of obsidian, and so was his short hair. She couldn't begin to guess a thing about him, not even his age.
Inside she quailed, helplessly, feeling like a mouse staring down a hawk.
But then he spoke, in a voice as deep as the rumble of thunder. "Ms. Farland. I'm Wade Kendrick." He didn't offer his hand.
The words sounded reluctant. As if he were no happier about putting her out than she was about taking this risk.
And his reluctance somehow eased her fear. "Hi," she said. "Have a seat."
He looked around as if deciding which chair might hold him. He finally took one end of the sofa. Cory sat on the Boston rocker, and Gage eased into the recliner again. The sheriff clearly suffered constant pain, but he never spoke of it.
"Okay," Gage said, since no one else seemed to be willing to talk. "Wade here needs a room indefinitely. Don't know how long, which is why he can't rent an apartment just yet. He's willing to pay monthly for a room.
"I'll eat out," Wade said. "I don't want to get underfoot."
She appreciated that at the same time she wondered at it. He didn't look like a man who gave a damn about such things. "It's not.much of a room," she said hesitantly.
"I don't need much."
Nor did he volunteer much. Of course, she wasn't volunteering anything, either.
"I guess, if you think it's worth it," she finally said. "I've never done this before."
"Ma'am, it's worth it to have a place to lay my head."
She needed the money, and she trusted Gage. Battering down the fear that never entirely left her, not even in her dreams, she said, "Go take a look at the room. It's upstairs. There's a bath up there, too, and it'll be all yours because I have one down here."
The man rose and without another word headed up the stairs at the rear of the living room. Cory glanced at Gage, feeling her heart flutter a little. Panic? Fear? She couldn't tell anymore, since the only feelings she had left were bad ones.
"It'll be all right, Cory," Gage said kindly as they listened to the heavy footsteps overhead. "Sometimes we all need a bolt-hole. That's all he wants."
She could understand that. She was living her entire life in a bolt-hole now.
She stiffened as she heard boots start down the stairway. She didn't want to turn and look, afraid of the impact this huge stranger had on her. But she couldn't evade looking at him for long, because he came to stand in front of her.
"It's just what I need," he said. He pulled out his wallet and handed her six hundred-dollar bills, crisp from the bank. "I'll go get my stuff."
Then he walked out and Cory sat staring at the money in her hand. She was used to seeing money at work, but not holding so much and knowing it was her own. Her hand shook a little.
"That's too much," she almost whispered. It was as much as she made in a month.
Gage shook his head. "He offered it, Cory. It's what he thinks the room is worth."
A minute later, Wade returned carrying a large heavy duffel bag. And that was it. In a matter of less than half an hour, she had gained a roomer, a roomer who carried his entire life, it seemed, in a bag.
How apt was that?
After Gage left, she had to deal with the uneasiness of hearing someone above her head for the first time since she had lived here. She could tell what he was doing by the sounds the rumbled through the floor: unpacking and putting things in the battered dresser.
She needed to give him a key, she realized, and felt her heart lurch at the thought. Her safety not only lay behind a new identity, but also behind locks that were always fastened, and an alarm system the feds had installed. The idea of giving a stranger both a key and the alarm code very nearly caused her a panic attack.
But then she remembered how easily those men had gotten to her and her husband, and knew that no lock or alarm in the world would protect her if she opened her door at the wrong time.
God, she thought, stop this, Cory! The whole reason she was here in out-of-the-way Conard County, Wyoming, the whole reason she was working as a grocery clerk instead of a teacher, with all the public documents that would require, was so that she didn't have to look over her shoulder for the rest of her life.
Nothing about her life now in any way resembled her life before. Not even her work. Not even her face. That was where her safety lay, not in locks and alarm systems.
She heard Wade come down the stairs. This time she made herself look at him. He hadn't changed, but she felt a shiver of fear anyway. This was still the man Gage had felt safe bringing into her life, and he might be big and appear ready to kill with his bare hands, but Gage trusted him. And she trusted Gage.
"I need to give you a key and show you the alarm code, Mr. Kendrick," she said. Her voice sounded weak, but at least it was steady.
He stood at the foot of the stairs, looking at her. "You comfortable with that? " he asked.
How had he guessed? Was her terror written all over her face? "I.you live here now. You need to be able to come and go when I work."
"No?" What kind of answer was that? "I can manage."
She felt a bit stunned by his response. He could manage? He was paying what she considered to be an exorbitant rent to use that lousy bed and bath upstairs for a month, but he was willing to be locked out when she was gone? Had he read her fear so clearly? Or did she stink of it?
Probably the latter, she thought miserably. How would she know? She'd been afraid for so long.
"I'm going out to get sheets, towels, a few other things," he said after a moment. "Which direction should I head?"
Another thought struck her. "Do you have a car?"
"I can walk."
"I could walk, too," she said, feeling a smidgen of her old self spring to life. The resurrection was almost as painful as the death, but at least it was only a small thing, and thus a small pain she could endure. "But if you need a bunch of things, then you might need an extra arm."
"Yeah. You'll manage." Sighing, she stood up. "I'll drive you. I need some food anyway." And because of him she now had the money to buy it. Guilt, if nothing else, goaded her.
She went to get her purse. Before they stepped out, however, she insisted on giving him her spare key, and showing him the code for the alarm. If he thought it was odd there was such an advanced alarm system in such a ramshackle house, he didn't indicate it by word or look.
Instead he asked just one question. "Motion detectors?"
"Down here at night. I turn them on separately. Same code. Did you see the keypads upstairs in your bedroom?"
"Well, if you need to come down here at night, you can turn off the entire system from up there, too. To turn off the motion detectors, use the small keypad beside the big one. The rest of the system is on the big pad." She made herself look at him then. Another shiver passed through her as she realized this man could probably snap her in two if he wanted to. Once she had never had those kinds of thoughts. Now she had them all the time. "If you leave, for any reason, and I'm not here or awake, please turn on the entire system."
He nodded. Nothing in his face said he thought that was strange.
She explained the panic buttons, which would direct a call instantly to police, fire or ambulance. Their mere existence reminded her of all that had happened.
And none of it would have done her a damn bit of good fifteen months ago.