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The bright sun felt warm on his skin. If he'd been here for no reason other than a desire to enjoy the weather, Mac Riordan would have stopped and turned his face up to let the bright rays try to heat blood that these days always seemed chilled. Instead, he glanced around while keeping his quarry in sight, taking in the lush greenness of the park crowded with citizens enjoying the early spring air.
He couldn't believe the hunter's rush he felt at this planned-for encounter. Finally, after all this time, he'd meet the woman who had, inadvertently or not, stolen everything he had left to live for.
He'd planned this carefully, just happened to take a stroll along the tree-lined, paved walking path when the very woman he'd come to town to find strode past him on her daily walkEmily Gilley. He'd been watching her for a week, after all, and figured an accidental meeting in the park would be a great way to meet her.
True, if he wanted this to appear unintentional, keeping up with her confident pace without looking as though he was stalking her might prove difficult, though not impossible.
He doubted she'd find him suspicious. From what he'd heard about the east Texas town of Anniversary, everyone was friendly and trusting and looked out for each other. If this was true, then Emily Gilley would have no reason to worry about a friendly stranger.
He allowed himself the slightest of grim smiles. If only she knew.
So far, he'd been careful. After all, he'd only been in town for three weeks. It was just long enough to establish his brand-new trucking business and to put out a few feelers about her, the woman he'd spent several years trying to locate: Emily Gilley, twenty-nine-year-old widow of one of the most notorious drug dealers on the Eastern Seaboard. She'd changed her name, taking back her mother's maiden name Gilley, and altered both the cut and the color of her hair, all to help her disappear. But for someone with the far-flung resources to which he had access, finding her had been a matter of time and a tenacious effort. He was fortunate to still have a lot of the tools from his law enforcement days at his disposal.
Her long, blond locks were now dark, short and spiky. Instead of designer fashions, she wore clothing that looked off the rack at a big bin department store. She'd gone from a glamorous life in Manhattan to this: a tiny lakefront community ninety miles east of Dallas.
As he hurried around a bend at the end of the trail, trying not to appear in too much of a rush, he nearly ran into her. She'd stopped at the weathered wooden bench that marked the entrance to the paved parking lot of Sue's Catfish Hut, which was crowded with lunch-time patrons.
She was stopped and turned to face him, apparently willing to wait for him to catch up.
This was going even better than he'd hoped, he thought with some satisfaction. And then he got a look at her annoyed expression.
Hands on her hips, she glared at him, her brown eyes full of anger mixed with only the barest hint of fear. "What do you want? Stop following me! If you're trying to creep me out, you're succeeding admirably."
He dipped his chin, sending her an abashed smile he hoped she'd find reassuring. "My apologies. I had no idea this was a private trail."
Instead of growing flustered, she shook her head, sending her shaggy spiked hair rippling. "It's not. But I walk here every day on my lunch break, and I know almost everyone in town. Every time I look up, you're right behind me. You never pass me or fall back. And while this is the first time I've seen you here, you have to understand how such behavior can make a woman feel threatened."
"Threatened? Interesting choice of words." He crossed his arms. "I'm new here, and I mean you no harm. I wasn't aware being a newcomer and taking a walk were crimes."
Narrowing her eyes, she studied him, apparently not buying his too-easy, confident patter. In his experience, overly suspicious or outright paranoid people usually had something to hide. But then again, she had a point. He was a stranger who was following her, and her former husband had been a drug dealer. No doubt, looking over her shoulder had been deeply ingrained in her psyche. She'd be foolish not to worry. And one thing he'd learned about Emily Gilley, formerly Cavell, was that she was anything but stupid.
Finally, she took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly.
"Look," she said, her tone reasonable this time rather than furious, "you've been following me way too closely. What matters is that you've made me very uncomfortable." Swallowing hard, she studied him, her caramel gaze unflinching. "And even though this is a small town, one can't be too careful."
It was especially true for a woman like her, with so many secrets to hide.
He nodded, feigning chagrin. "Again, I apologize. If I'd known I was frightening you, I would have dropped back or" he grimaced ruefully "I would have tried to pass you."
Rather than accept his apology, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "You said you're new in town, right?"
"Yes." Relieved and slightly surprised that getting to know her was going to be this simple, he gave her a practiced, easy smile, holding out his hand. "Mac Riordan."
Instead of a handshake, she simply continued to stare him down. Only when he'd dropped his hand and frowned did she speak again in a cool, measured tone. "Welcome to Anniversary, Mac Riordan. I don't know who you are or what you want, but in the future, please leave me alone.
Tamping down shock, he feigned confusion instead. "Ma'am, I"
Backing up slightly, she tilted her head and peered up at him. "Let me ask you something. Are you the one who mailed me the note? It was postmarked Dallas. Is that where you're from?"
"Note?" He eyed her warily. Had someone tipped her off about his arrival? "What note? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You didn't send me an anonymous note? Cut out letters on white paper?"
Was this a joke? Then, as he realized what she'd said, his former cop instincts made him ask, "Is someone sending you threatening notes?"
Again he got the sharp, brown-glass stare, as if she thought if she tried hard enough she could read his mind. Since he'd been looked at all kinds of ways by all sorts of people in his previous life in law enforcement, he let her. Silence was often the best interrogation method of all.
"You didn't answer my question. Are you from Dallas?"
"No," he fired back. "Albany, New York. Now tell me about this note."
"That's none of your business," she said calmly, her spine so rigid he thought it might snap. Then, apparently considering he might in fact be harmless, she swallowed, still eyeing him warily.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so rude. I've got to go." She mouthed the words, sounding anything but. Without another word, she marched off, her spiky dark hair ruffling in the breeze.
Watching her slender, lithe body as she went, he couldn't help but respect that she knew enough to be wary. Because if their situations had been reversed, he'd have done exactly the same. People on the run from former lives couldn't afford to befriend curious strangers.
This was exactly the reason he had to make sure he gained her trustno matter what it took.