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Drive faster. Move. Go. Fly.
No. Slow down. If you get a ticket, he can track you.
Choosing the wiser impulse, Cara Price eased her foot off the accelerator. She glanced at her daughter, hoping she hadn't picked up on Cara's panic. Beth Ann stared ahead, clutching her stuffed rabbit close to her chest. At nine, she was too old to cling to a comfort object, but the therapist had warned Cara that abrupt changes might set Beth Ann back.
Cara had been as upbeat about the move as possible, calling it an adventure, a chance to meet new people, see new places, take new names.
They'd had to run. Her ex-husband would come for them the moment he was released from prison and he wouldn't stop until he had them.
Cara would not allow that.
She'd counted on Barrett's six-year sentence for the time she needed to get her teaching degree, buy new identities and safely start new lives.
But prison overcrowding and legal maneuvers had gotten Barrett released three years early.
He would be out any day now. Any. Day. Now. The thought made her catch her breath.
"What's wrong?" Beth Ann jerked her gaze to Cara.
"Nothing. I'm just thinking." She forced a smile. "You sure you want to go by Bunny? Won't that be confusing?" Bunny was her rabbit's name.
"Not to me," Beth Ann said.
"Then Bunny it is. I'm CJ, remember? It's my initialsCara Julietteso it's easy. And our new last name starts with the same letter as PricePeyton."
"CJ sounds like a man's name. I hate it. I hate new names. I hate moving. I don't want a new home or new people. I want Grandma Price and Serena and my teacher and my school. You made me miss Water Day and the class play and the awards. I was going to get the reading prize." Her voice broke, but instead of crying, she stiffened, lifted her head and locked her jaw. Beth Ann refused to cry, refused to let Cara comfort her and it broke Cara's heart every time.
Beth Ann didn't trust her. Not since Barrett had put Cara in the hospital.
"I know it's hard. I had to leave my teachers in the lurch," Cara said.
It was mid-May, two weeks shy of summer break, so Beth Ann wouldn't lose any academic ground, but the end of the school year was hectic for the teachers at the middle school where Cara was an aide.
She'd left a family-emergency note and fled. Her cheeks burned with shame. She'd always been a go-to person, someone people could count on. She was the one-woman sunshine committeeplanning baby showers, potlucks and birthday celebrations. She'd let them all down. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
Cara had come so far these past three years, become more self-confident, more sure of what she wanted, of who she could become.
But the moment she'd heard about Barrett, she felt lost again, timid and uncertain, the way she'd been when she'd married the man at eighteen.
His words played in her head. The world will eat you up, Cara. You 'll never make it on your own. You need help.
"What about Serena?" Beth Ann asked. "Can't I at least call her to say goodbye?"
"The lady said no calls, no email, not even a postcard." The domestic violence counselor had been firm. The smallest slip could cost them their safety. The woman had seen it happen. "There will be girls at the center who've had troubles, too. Maybe the family we'll share the apartment with will be like us."
Their counselor had made the arrangements through a network that found housing and no-questions-asked jobs for women escaping abusive men.
"You'll make new friends."
"I don't want new friends. I want Serena."
Serena had been Beth Ann's first real friend since they'd moved in with Cara's mother three years before, so Cara felt sick about putting Beth Ann through this loss.
"You're sad now, but we'll be okay, I promise." Cara would keep her daughter safe, give her a good life, and heal her sad heart, no matter what it took. "Just a few hours and we'll be in Phoenix."
Except they'd barely crossed the Arizona border when the car's engine hesitated, gave an ominous clunk, then dropped into Neutral.
Fighting panic, Cara tapped the accelerator, but the engine only roared.
"What's wrong?" Beth Ann cried.
"I'm not sure." Cara jiggled the gearshift. The thud told her the engine had dropped into Drive. Whew. She held her breath, watching the lane stripes fly by. So far, so good.
Then there was a grinding sound, a high whine and the engine light flashed on. Damn. She didn't dare drive farther without getting the car checked, so she aimed for the next exit.
"Maybe it just needs oil," Cara said. She'd taken her mother's car instead of the BMW registered to Barrett to keep from being traced. To be doubly sure, she'd traded plates with a car on blocks in a farmer's field a few miles out of town.
Please let it be minor. Please, please. Her mother tended to neglect belongings. People, too, but that was another matter.
Cara couldn't afford a big repair. All she had was $500 after paying summer school tuition and her mother's rent.
Off the highway, the sign pointed to a town called New Hope. To her immediate right was a Quonset hut that might be an auto repair shop. On the same lot was a diner. The Comfort Cafe.
Cara turned to her daughter. "I'm hungry. How about you?"
Beth Ann shook her head. Since the attack she had no appetite. Not even for ice cream, her favorite treat, which she now hated.
"Let's give it a try anyway," Cara said, forcing cheer into her voice.
New Hope and Comfort. They could use a little of both, though Cara would settle for a bite to eat and a decent mechanic.
The second side of the patty had barely sizzled when Jonah Gold scooped it off the grill and slapped it onto the bun he'd laid open on the plate. Carver Johnson was a cattleman and he liked his beef fresh off the hoof, just this side of raw. He was one of the locals who still ate at the cafe despite the two new fast-food places and the fancy bistro that had opened up in the past year.
Jonah's aunt Rosie, who owned the cafe, had seemed oddly resigned to the dwindling number of diners. He'd expected her to throw pans and bitch out the traitors, but she'd only sighed and shrugged.
Not like her at all.
She hadn't been herself lately.
The bell jangled. Damn. Jonah had hoped to close early, since the new waitress Rosie had promised him hadn't showed.
Behind him, Ernesto, his ever-steady busboy, was slamming dishes into the dishwasher, singing in off-key Spanish along with whatever came through his iPod buds. The kid was nineteen and smart as a whip, but too shy to wait tables.
Jonah peered out the kitchen pass-through to see who'd decided to push his patience past its limit.
A pretty blonde, midtwenties, with a little girl, took a back booth. She looked too harried to be one of the day-trippers headed for the galleries and antique shops of New Hope, which was something of an artist colony. So probably a highway traveler.
"Menu's on the table," he called. "Yell out your order."
When he carried out the burger, he saw the woman and her daughter had moved to sit a few stools south of Carver.
"We thought it would be easier here," the woman said with a candle flicker of a smile. "Looks like you've got no waitress."
"You scare off Darlene?" Carver asked. He loved to needle people.
"She quit all on her own."
Darlene had moved in with her boyfriend to play house. Bad idea, not that she'd asked Jonah. He wasn't much for chitchat anyway, and he was no Dr. Phil.
Meanwhile, the little girl stared right at him. He respected that about kidshow direct they were in looks, words and deeds. Adults hid too much and faked the rest. They made him tired.
"Where's my damn steak sauce?" Carver yelled.
"Hold your water." Jonah bent to check beneath the counter. Napkins, flatware, salt and pepper, menus Where the hell was the
"Top shelf behind you."
He stood. The woman was pointing over his shoulder. He grabbed the bottle and slid it down the counter like a bartender in an Old West saloon.
"Might not need it, after all," Carver drawled. "You've got more respect for beef than your brother. He charred the life out of every bite."
Only when he was drunk. Eight months ago, Jonah had come to New Hope to get Evan clean and sober. He'd been straight for three months this time and swore he was set. Jonah was not so sure. He'd learned the hard way not to take what people said at face value.
"How does a fish sandwich sound?" the woman asked her daughter in that bright voice nurses used when they were about to rip out a catheter.
The girl shrugged. She clutched a grimy, one-eyed stuffed animal, which reminded him of Louis, the feral cat who pretended not to care about the nightly head rub Jonah gave him.
"She'll try that." The woman shot him a fake smile. He got the feeling she faked a lot of smiles. "I'll have the Caesar salad with chicken. Is the chicken fried or boiled?"
"At the moment, frozen."
"Boiled then and two lemonades, please." She slid the menu back in its slot. "Also, is there a good mechanic nearby? My car's making a funny noise."
So that's what had her frazzled. Sunlight through the window made her blue eyes look almost silver.
"Duvall Auto Works. On the right just as you hit the town. Rusty'll talk your ear off, but he's good and he's honest."
"Thanks." She had blond, flyaway hair, a pointed nose, sharp cheekbones and a heart-shaped mouth, reminding him of who?
After a second it came to him. The pixie in the fantasy video game Evan had loved as a kid. Esmeralda. All this woman needed were whirring wings and a sparkly wand and she'd be a dead ringer for the fairy warrior.
She looked at him strangely and he realized he'd been staring a hair too long. "Got it. Right."
Jonah ducked into the kitchen, slapped the fish patty on the grill and started on her salad. At least she hadn't ordered one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink numbers with crap like dried loganberries and coconut curls. Jesus, what a lot of fuss over a pile of roughage.
When that attorney from Tucson asked about aru-gula, he'd suggested she try the bistro in town, only to find out Rosie had dragged her in to meet him. Rosie thought he was lonely.
He was still raw from Suzannethe ink on the divorce papers barely six months drythough he wasn't sure he would ever get over that.
Jonah was looking for a carrot to shredmight as well make an effortwhen the door clanged, followed by voices. Lots of 'em.
He leaned down and looked out at the pack of senior citizens swarming the booths. Of all the days for a tour bus. Damn.
The woman at the counter met his gaze through the pass-through. "I used to waitress," she said. "I could pitch in if you'd like."
She looked too well-off for that kind of work. Her tailored blouse looked pricey and she wore a heavy fili-greed locket and carried a hand-tooled bag.
"You sure?" he asked.
"I'm happy to help."
She seemed to mean it, so he grabbed an apron off the shelf and held it out. "Order pad's by the register."
She sent her daughter out to the car for a book to read, tied on the apron and got to work, acting like she'd been here months, not minutes. Maybe his luck had changed after all.
She was clipping slips to his wheel, rattling off the orders when he finished her food and set the plates on the ledge. "You should eat." He'd put her to work hungry. What a jerk.
"When there's time." She set up her daughter with lemonade, then came into the kitchen to prep the sides. The perfume she wore hung in the air. She smelled pink.
How the hell did pink smell?
When she breezed past him going after the bagged slaw, he got a nice blast and figured it out. Cotton candy.
A few minutes later, he heard her speak to the little girl. "Please try. You didn't eat breakfast."
The kid was rail-thin. She buried her nose in the matted fur of that stuffed animal. What the hell was it? The ragged ears were long, so a rabbit maybe.
The woman huffed in frustration. Noticing Jonah watching, she shot him another fake smile. He'd bet a real one would be a sight to see.
Once she'd walked away, he leaned out the window. "Hey," he called to the girl. When she looked up, he said, "Try the ketchup cure." He nodded at the squeeze bottle by the napkin dispenser. "Squirt on a good dose. It works."
He turned to his grill so he wouldn't make her nervous. No one liked being watched when they ate, least of all a picky eater. Evan had gone through a phase.
After a bit, the mom came back to check on her daughter. "You ate a lot." She made it sound like a miracle. "What's on your cheek?" She wiped off the red smear.
"It's ketchup. He said it's a cure." The girl pointed at Jonah.
The woman looked at him. "I didn't realize condiments had healing powers."
He shrugged. "Depends on what ails you, I guess."
"Evidently." She held his gaze, her blue eyes full of relief and gratitude and something else.
That certain spark.
He felt it, toolike an oil pop in the center of his chest, sharp and hot and surprising. He hadn't felt that in so long he'd forgotten its power.
The woman seemed startled as well, and when she called out the new orders, her voice had a rasp to it.
When the tour group finally cleared out, he took a twenty from the register and went to where she was paying Ernesto out of her tips.
He held out the cash. "You saved my ass. Your food's on the house, too."
"It was fun," she said, taking the twenty. "It brought back good memories." She reached behind her to untie her apron, arching her back and drawing his eye to her chest. Great rack, Evan would say. That made Jonah think of playing pool, but that made no sense because breasts weren't triangular or
Why the hell was he analyzing her tits?
"Huh?" he said, realizing she'd said something.
"The tie's knotted. Would you mind?" She turned her back to him.
He was picking at the string when Rosie came through the door, saw them and stopped dead. "You came in after all?" she said to the woman. "You're Dell Morgan's niece, right? Monica?"
"No. My name's, uh, CJ." She seemed to have to think about that. Rosie's gruffness threw people.
"She's a customer," Jonah said. "She used to waitress so she helped with a busload of tourists."
"Good deal. I'm Rosie Underhill. I own this place." She gave the woman's hand a hard shake. "You met my nephew."
"Not formally." She turned to him.
He would have sent her on her way without asking her name or giving her his. Typical. He did better alone in his shop, at the grill or in his cave of a trailer. "Jonah Gold." He held out his hand.
"Nice to meet you." Her hand was small, her fingers delicate as balsa, so he gentled his grip.