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"What the hell!" Alex jerked awake when his car left the road.
A tree branch slammed into the windshield, cracking the glass. He wrestled with the steering wheel. His foot missed the brake, and the car plowed a path through waist-high corn.
He turned the car sharply to the left and cursed the worn-out shocks when his head banged the ceiling. Finally, he found the brake and stomped down hard. The car came to rest at the edge of a corn field beside County Road G29. The perfect homecoming.
His forehead resting on the steering wheel, he willed his pulse to return to normal. The sound of his ragged breaths filled the car. Alex and the '76 Mustang were apparently in one piece. He peered through spider-web fractures in the windshield.
A misty rain veiled a shadowy skyline. Skyline? Hell, Close, Iowa, was too small to have a skyline, just a few lumps on the horizon with the water tower hovering overhead like an alien space craft. From where Alex sat, the town looked the same as it had when he was twelve, almost twenty-five years ago, the night he ran away.
He turned and looked behind him. The road, straight and narrow, disappeared in the distance, obscured by ripening crops.
A quick walk around the car confirmed he wasn't driving anywhere soon. The front end had sunk to the axle in mud. While he contemplated the three-mile walk to town, the rain stopped and dusk passed into evening. The Mustang's headlights glowed brighter in the darkness. He got back in the car and turned them off.
Walking didn't appeal to him and he didn't want to leave the car. If he'd been willing to do that, he would have left it in the garage and flownout. Besides, to pretend he was in a hurry now was ludicrous. He'd spent three weeks driving from San Francisco to Iowa.
When he draped himself over the steering wheel, sleep threatened to drag him under again, but the hard surface dug into his chest and woke him. He fumbled through Hershey wrappers and Coke cans on the passenger seat for his leather flight jacket. After transforming the steering wheel into a serviceable pillow with the jacket, he forced himself to relax. The stale smell of cigarettes enveloped him when he hugged the worn leather.
"God, what am I going to do?" Returning to Iowa couldn't possibly be the answer.
A telegram informing him of his stepfather's death had summoned him to Iowa, and his coworkers at the hospital encouraged him to leave. They all but threatened to pull his credentials. "It's just what you need. Get away from work. What's there to worry about in Iowa?"
His friends' innocent question brought home just how alone he was in this world. Everyone who understood why he shouldn't go back was dead. How could he pay his respects to the man who had murdered his mother?
He had missed his stepfather's funeral, but according to his stepsister, Lorraine Bettencourt, everyone was waiting for him, waiting for the reading of Miles Bettencourt's will.
Now, Alex admired the glow of distant street lights against the black sky. The windshield broke the glow into a thousand points of light, each one softened by the sheen of rain coating the glass. He brushed away the water that came through the driver's side window and clung to his beard.
That settled it. It was raining and dark. Tomorrow he would face the good people of Close. For now, he planned to shut the car window and get some sleep, but after a few cranks, the window stuck. One of the crotchety Mustang's favorite tricks. A car for a younger man. One looking for adventure, not for transportation.
Cool rain continued to wet Alex's face. Then it stopped.
First, he looked to the front. The rain fell more rapidly now. Light filtered through sheets of water and broken glass, filling the old car with wavering patches of white. Something stood at his left blocking the rain. Something in the dark he had failed to notice until now.
When he tried again to close the window, Alex saw a hand snake through the opening. He had time only to pull the keys from the ignition before fingers gripped his throat.
"A car! A car!" The little girl jumped up and down, and pointed through the storefront window.
Skye left the sink of dirty dishes, and dried her hands on her jeans. After fluffing her hair off her sweaty neck, she joined Christy, her charge for the evening, at the front of the Senior Citizens' Center. Together, they looked out the window.
Tonight, Skye expected to see Sheldon Seabrook making his weekly appearance to pitch his great idea for solving her money woes -- matrimony. The high school graduation ceremony had let out hours ago. Tears threatened at the thought of the senior class filing into the gym. If she hadn't been laid off, she would have directed the band in "Pomp and Circumstance" instead of Sheldon.
The car the little girl pointed at wasn't Sheldon's shiny red Camaro. Red paint did peek through layers of mud, but on a well-dented Mustang attached to Marvin Fullerton's tow truck. Skye took Christy by the hand and stepped onto the sidewalk.
Before she could get out a greeting, Marvin jumped from his truck, surprisingly agile for a man five-foot-six who weighed more than two hundred pounds. He slammed the door on his cab and brushed past her into the Center.
"Damnedest thing I ever seen. Sorry, Missus Devries. Darnedest thing I ever seen. Just like in the movies. Who'd have thought it could happen here in Close. Feet kicking, bodies flying. Just like in some Bruce Lee flick. Got coffee?"
Her heart racing, Skye followed Marvin to the kitchen where he sat and pulled Christy onto his lap. Skye glanced at the ancient wall clock and reminded herself she'd talked to her fourteen-year-old stepson less than an hour ago. Dirk was safe in bed.
"Well?" Marvin looked at Skye. Like some medieval herald, he required payment before sharing his news, and Skye would have to drag every word out of him. Marvin loved this game.
She slid a cup of coffee across the table along with two donuts, one of which the little girl took. Her prize in hand, Christy shimmied out of Marvin's lap and returned to the window to stare at the battered car.
"All right, Marvin. What's up?" Skye asked. When Marvin didn't answer, she dug another donut out of the box and dangled it in front of him. "Was anyone hurt?"
Marvin took the donut and didn't open his mouth to speak until he downed half of it. "Nobody hurt, not in the car anyway. Now the other guys, the guys in the truck--" Skye looked out the kitchen pass-through to see if Christy was listening. She had lost interest in the car and sat rocking on the floor clutching her doll. Where was David Ritter? He'd promised to pick up his sister hours ago.
"What guys?" she asked.
"Might have been car jackers like you get in the city, but it seemed kind of personal to me. Close isn't the sort of place you pass through look'n for trouble, and this guy's car wasn't much to look at, even before he ran it in the ditch."
"Should I call the sheriff?" Skye cut in. Marvin could ramble for hours if she didn't keep him focused.
"Already done. The driver's going to give his official statement to Sheriff Harley tomorrow. The guys in the truck got away. When I spotted 'em, I thought this guy in the car was done for. If they'd had guns instead of knives--"
Skye cleared her throat and gave Marvin her best teacher look. "Please, start at the beginning, Marvin."
Marvin folded his hands around his cup and began again. "I was on Route 29, 'bout three miles out, on my way to jump Terlouw's Ford. Must still be waiting. His missus left the lights on. Happens every time it rains. I've told him a thousand times--"
Skye eased the donut box out of his reach.
Marvin looked as resentful as a man could with a mouth coated in powdered sugar. "I spotted this pick-up stopped on the side without lights. Dangerous with this rain. Then, I saw this beat-up Mustang half-in, half-out of Terlouw's corn field." He jerked his head to indicate the car behind his tow truck.
"That's when I saw these two guys. Didn't notice me, even when my headlights caught 'em. Must have been on something. Wired, you know? Then I saw the driver, the guy attached to this here Mustang. Couldn't hear everything said, but one of the wired guys yelled at the driver to get on his hands and knees. All hell broke loose after that. Kung Fu stuff. Just like in the movies."
Christy appeared at the table and reached for the last of Marvin's donut. He directed the rest of his story to the girl. "The nice man fought off the bad men and sent them running for their truck. I wrote down the license number -- Illinois plates -- and gave it to Sheriff Harley."
Marvin puffed out his chest at his part in the excitement. By tomorrow, he would have embellished the story with a hundred details. "Just think, it all happened here in Close."
"Not really here," Skye protested. Close was safe. It had to be. "You were three miles outside of town, and you said the truck was from out-of-state."
Marvin shrugged and stood. He took Christy with him to rummage through the donut box.
"So, where's he staying?" Skye asked.
"Who?" Marvin mumbled through a mouthful of the last Boston cream.
"The driver, Marvin. Where is the driver?"
"Motel's full. Graduation, you know. This guy -- Alex, he said -- is from California if you go by the car plates. He sounds sort of funny, though, like he's foreign, and looks a bit down on his luck. Must have everything he owns in that car. I'm taking it to the shop. Front axle's broke. Windshield's busted. Hope he's got some money, or friends."
Marvin could be such a fool. He'd left the poor man on the street while he scarfed donuts and coffee. "Watch Christy for me. I'll check on him."
Marvin called after her. "He was asleep, Mrs. Devries. Didn't have the heart to wake him."
Skye looked down Main Street, all three blocks of it. Except for her blue pick-up and Marvin's tow truck and its load, the rain-slicked street was empty.
Circling Marvin's truck and the muddy Mustang, she noted California plates and an expired registration sticker. The back seat was stuffed with boxes of papers and books, thrown together as if the driver had left in a hurry. Candy wrappers and soda cans filled the front passenger seat.
At least she could scrape together dinner for the man. She hadn't cleaned out the pots left over from spaghetti night.
She stood on the running board to reach through the half-open window of Marvin's cab and gently shook Alex's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
He turned his head toward her, but didn't open his eyes. He looked young. No, not exactly young. Fine lines around the eyes and mouth, an occasional gray hair amid the dull black, made him at least thirty.
Not young, but innocent, even with several days' growth of beard on his pale face. He'd carelessly secured his shoulder-length hair with a rubber band, as if it had suddenly grown too long and he hadn't the time or the money to cut it.
This wasn't the big city, even if some out-of-town hooligans had attacked him. People in Close didn't sleep on the street, not even in their cars. "Hey. You can't sleep here. Wake up."
She brushed a lock of hair from his cheek.
His lashes fluttered, revealing eyes bloodshot and bruised from lack of sleep, and he stretched his arms overhead.
When he opened his eyes fully, she realized she'd been holding her breath, trying to guess their color. "Brown," she murmured.
"Brown what?" He yawned. Brown eyes, deep and dark, came alive when he looked her up and down.
Skye stepped back. Blatant appraisals weren't new to her, but they usually came from gangly teenage boys. Coming from a full-grown man, the lingering gaze that flicked from her head to her feet and slowly rose to settle on her breasts sent sparks careening down her back.
When he continued to stare, she crossed her arms over her chest. "I said town. You can't sleep in your car here in town. Come in and I'll get you a cup of coffee. It is Alex, isn't it?"
"That's what I told Marvin."
Deep and rich, his voice sent a new batch of shivers down her spine. She stepped away when he opened the door. Standing close to a stranger set off silent alarms. Skye swallowed hard as she rounded the front of the tow truck and stepped onto the curb.
"Your Marvin's an excitable man."
She couldn't place his accent, but he didn't sound like he came from Iowa or from California. Wherever he was from, she could stand here and listen to him all night. "He's not my Marvin. I'm sure he told you he runs the garage."
Almost a foot taller than her five-feet-three-inches, Alex stood slightly hunched over, thumbs hooked on his belt. He looked up and down the deserted street with a disdainful air of mild curiosity and dry amusement.
The stranger's dress hardly qualified him to turn up his nose at Close. He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt, expensive from the detailing on the collar, but dirty, rumpled, and wet with sleeves shoved to the elbows. The shirt clung to his chest, barely staying tucked into his pants. His blue jeans were worn white above the knees where the steering wheel rubbed. Alex from California had been on the road a long time.
He retrieved his jacket and grabbed a small duffel bag from the back seat of his car. When he straightened, he winced and pulled the jacket against his side. "And what's your function in this delightful little town? Are you the Welcome Wagon?"
"The closest thing we've got. Would you like some hot food? It's no bother. We had a dinner here at the Senior Center before the graduation ceremony at the high school and there's some food left. It never fails, we either make too much or not enough. The weather was a bit unsettled. It kept some people away." Skye glanced again at the debris that covered the Mustang's front seat and wondered if she was talking too much.
Alex followed her into the Center and stopped a moment to watch Christy, who ignored them and continued coloring. "Well, if it's already made.... Is there some place I can wash?"
After Alex disappeared down the hall, Skye slipped into the chair across from Marvin. "Where are you taking him?"
"Me? I take care of cars, not people. Besides, Sheriff Harley said you'd know what to do with him."
Skye's jaw dropped. What was Harley thinking asking her to take in a stranger? She had known Harley her entire life. During high school, he'd practically lived at her grandparents' house. He'd been best man at her wedding and gave the eulogy at her husband's funeral, but this was a lot to ask.
Marvin dug into his pocket and slid a crumpled bit of paper across the table. "Sheriff Harley said you'd take Alex to the Old Jackson place. You're still keeping an eye on it for Miss Lorraine, ain't you?"
She nodded, her mouth still open.
"Alex was real friendly with the Sheriff. From the way they were talking, they must know each other pretty well."
She moved to stand where she could see Christy, and pressed the wrinkled paper smooth against the side of the open door.
Skye, I would take Alex home with me, but I'll be working all night and don't want to bother Jenna. If you'll take him to the old Jackson place, I'll send someone for him in the morning. Harley.
Not much of a note considering he wanted her to put up a stranger in a house she didn't own, but she understood Harley's reluctance to bring company home. His wife was seven months pregnant with their first child, and as everyone at the senior center agreed, she was much too old to have a baby. Harley treated his wife as if she were a window on display at the Iowa Glass Window Factory, with great care and more than a little awe.
Skye slipped the paper into her pocket and looked for Alex. He stood in the front room watching Christy color her picture of Santa Claus, torn from an out-of-date coloring book.
"Alex seems a nice enough guy," Marvin continued, "and you've got all that room at the Jackson place. You know Harley wouldn't ask if this guy wasn't safe."
Skye agreed Alex looked harmless. Sweet even, despite his disheveled clothes. Maybe Harley knew Alex from the service; although, with his shoulder-length hair, Alex didn't look like an ex-marine.
"I can take Christy to her grandma for you. She should be home from work about now. That way you won't have no excuse."
Skye shrugged agreement. She couldn't escape being imposed upon. The people of Close knew her like they'd known her husband Ben and her grandparents. If something needed doing, you went to the Devries or the Bergens.
When she walked to the store front to stand beside Alex, he was humming. The sound rumbled deep and rich in his chest. His hands looked well scrubbed -- strong hands with swirls of dark hair on the backs. Manicured nails. A surprise, considering his generally unkempt state. Her heart thudded oddly when she noticed his ornate silver wedding band.
She smelled pine soap, and damp leather and old cigarettes from the jacket slung over his shoulder. A wide band of lighter skin circled one wrist. Had he lost his watch in the attack or had he sold it for gasoline and candy bars? He stopped humming before she recognized the tune.
"Are you ready to go home, Christy?" Skye asked.
Sleepily, the girl nodded.
"Your daughter looks like she's ready for bed," Alex said.
Their eyes met over Christy's blond curls. Skye detected rebuke in his eyes. She understood his mistake. Christy had inherited from her father the same fair, blond Swedish looks Skye got from her mother. Besides, Alex's concern for a child he didn't know made her feel strangely warm inside.
"I sure wish Christy was mine," Skye teased, tickling the sleepy girl as she gathered her into her arms. "But she has a grandma who's waiting for her, don't you, peanut?"
The girl was almost asleep when Skye handed her to Marvin. Alex stood with her and watched the tow truck driver walk down the street. When Marvin rounded the corner, Alex leaned against the door frame as if too tired to stand unaided.
She watched while he rested, his eyes closed. Dark where Ben was fair, hair long where Ben's was short, but Alex reminded her of her late husband -- concerned about children, evidently careless with money. She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. "You seem to like children, Alex. Do you have any of your own?"
He ran his hands over his face. "You said something about coffee."
"Sorry." Skye led the way to the kitchen, her face hot with embarrassment.
Alex hung his jacket on the back of Marvin's chair and brushed aside donut crumbs before he sat.
"I'm unofficial director of the Close Senior Citizen's Center, for the moment," she said, searching for a neutral topic.
"I'm temporarily without employment and marooned here, it looks like." Alex stood and looked at his car, still hooked to Marvin's tow truck.
Skye poured the last of the coffee into two Styrofoam cups and pushed one across the table. "No one's going to take your car. Close is a pretty safe town."
"Can't prove it by me. My reception wasn't too friendly."
"Marvin told me. I'm sorry."
The fine lines around his eyes deepened when he smiled, and his brown eyes seemed to call to her. The warm feeling in her middle spread to her toes. She grabbed a cup to keep her hands busy.
"No reason for you to apologize," he said. "Or are you responsible for law enforcement as well as the Senior Center?"
"My grandfather used to be the sheriff here, and my husband worked for the department part-time. When you live in a small town, you can't help wanting to make a good impression." She took in the damp shirt that clung to his arms and chest. "Even the weather isn't cooperating. Do you have dry clothes?"
Alex pulled his shirt away from his chest and waved it briefly. "I think they're all dirty."
From what she could see through the wet cotton, his chest was broad, muscular, and judging from the dark swirls on his naked forearms, covered with black hair. It had been much too long since she'd rested her head on such a chest, much too long since hands like his had teased her awake in the middle of the night.
He cradled the coffee cup, not moving it toward his mouth. She tried not to stare, and he kept his eyes focused on his coffee. The silence felt uncomfortably long to her, but didn't seem to bother him.
"Would you like that hot meal now?" Skye asked.
"Not really. I'm more tired than hungry."
Before Skye could think of a polite response, Marvin banged open the door. "Why are you guys still here?"
Alex took his jacket from the back of his chair. The only sign of distress was his tensing jaw when he eased his arms through the sleeves. He zipped the jacket to his neck. "I'll catch a ride back to the shop with my car."
After throwing Skye a dirty look, Marvin reached for the money jar she kept for non seniors who mooched coffee. He dug two coins out of his pocket and pushed them through the slot in the lid. Alex pulled out his wallet, turning away before he opened it.
Skye's cheeks glowed red. Darn Marvin. He had the man digging for his last dime to shame her into living up to her family's example of hospitality. "You don't have to do that."
Alex tucked his offering into the jar. "I can afford coffee."
Her face grew even hotter. "Of course, you can. I only meant you're a friend of Harley's and he asked me to put you up at my place. If you don't mind taking the sofa." Skye expected Alex to decline.
Instead, he smiled. "Great."
Alex didn't watch Marvin haul away the Mustang. The car rolled slowly down the street behind the truck, reminding him of a funeral procession. He wasn't up to another one of those.
Even if the car were road worthy, Harley wouldn't have let him drive it. Backwater sheriffs were such sticklers for little details like car registration. And Harley had surprised him by connecting the name on his driver's license with his identity as Clayton Jackson. For most of his life, he had answered to Alexander Casale, using Clayton Alexander Jackson, III, only for legal documents.
Thankfully, the sheriff kept that information to himself. If he had told Marvin, all of Close would know of Alex's arrival before noon tomorrow. He hoped to attend the reading of his stepfather's will, dispose of his share of the family business, and leave town unnoticed.
His hostess for the evening didn't strike him as the gossiping type, but according to the sheriff she was best buddies with his stepsister Lorraine. Alex could think of no better reason to keep his distance from a pretty woman. If she knew who he was, she would no doubt call his stepsister the first chance she got. Alex wanted to put off seeing Lorraine as long as he could.
Besides, the unofficial director of the Close Senior Citizen's Center was not his type -- a cheerleader in blue jeans. Tight blue jeans. Bright, brown eyes that revealed every thought. Short, blond hair so curly it bounced when she walked. And she couldn't stop blushing. The girl next door in a neighborhood he'd seen only in the movies. Little Miss Innocent. Not his type at all. She deserved better.
A light across the street caught his eye and Alex found himself staring at block lettering -- Jacob Van Wyk, Attorney-at-Law. His eyes watered before he blinked. He remembered the name. Jacob had sent the telegram informing him of Bettencourt's death and the reading of his will. Jacob was his late-father's lawyer, and the last man to see Alex the night he left Close twenty-five years ago.
Copyright © 1998 by Christine W. Murphy