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"Elaina, your husband is alive."
The eight-by-ten piece of amber glass that Elaina Allen had been examining slipped from her hand and crashed onto her desk. It didn't break but smashed right into a paper plate containing a half eaten slice of cherry pie. The red sugary filling spattered in every direction.
"Excuse me?" Elaina asked her assistant, Carrie.
"What did you say?"
"Your husband is alive," Carrie repeated, nodding frantically. She bobbled up and down on her tiptoes and gave an excited squeal. "He's in Crystal Creek and on the way to the shop. He should be here any minute."
Elaina's heart dropped to her knees. "There must be some mistake. Daniel's missing in action in the Middle East," Elaina lied. "If he'd been found, the air force would have told me."
Carrie grinned. "Well, they obviously didn't. A snafu maybe, or Daniel probably just wanted to surprise you. Anyway, he stopped by the gas station, and when he got ready to pay, the attendant, Jay, saw your picture in Daniel's wallet. That's when Jay figured out who he was. Jay said after Daniel filled up, he headed in this direction." Carrie's crystal blue eyes widened. "Oh, God. I blew the surprise by telling you, didn't I?"
Elaina couldn't answer. She could only shake her head. No. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't be.
"Are you all right?" Carrie asked. "You look like you're about to be sick."
There was a reason for that. Elaina knew that the comfortable, safe life she'd created was over. Her house and her stained-glass shop were as good as gone. She'd have to go on the run again.
"You're happy about this, right?" Carrie asked. "Imean, this is what you wantedfor Daniel to come home to Christopher and you. You're always saying how much you miss him."
She stared at her shop assistant. They were more than employer and employee. The eternally optimistic Carrie had become her friend. Well, as much of a friend as Elaina could have considering she'd lied to Carrie from day one.
Elaina wasn't immune to the guilt she felt about that, either. She'd never quite come to terms with the pretense.
But she had a more pressing problem.
Daniel Allen was on the way to her shop. Because that took her to the brink of panic, Elaina almost came clean about everything to Carrie. She almost explained all the lies. And, sweet heaven, there was a mound of lies. But she stopped her near confession and tried to make some sense of all of this.
"Jay said this man had my picture in his wallet?" Elaina clarified, praying for an out.
There had to be an out.
Carrie nodded, and the concern deepened in her eyes. "But he didn't just have your picture. When Jay asked, he told him that he was Daniel Allen."
Then, he was lying. No doubt about it. Because there was no Daniel Allen.
He was the biggest lie of all.
Daniel Allen was an idea that Elaina had concocted to explain why she'd moved to the sleepy Texas town of Crystal Creek. An MIA husband. A grieving heart. The desire to start a new life while keeping hope that her husband might be alive and that he might return someday.
Elaine had purposely kept the personal details sketchy, because details could be examined too closely. So, she'd had no picture of her fake husband in case someone compared his looks to her son's. Instead, she'd told everyone that all her photos had been destroyed in a house fire.
The faÃ§ade had kept some nosey questions from being asked, had given her space and privacy and it had allowed her and her baby, Christopher, to be accepted in a town where newcomers were often treated as outsiders.
That acceptance wouldn't continue once the townsfolk had learned that she was a liar. And this man, this imposter claiming to be Daniel Allen, would expose her.
Better yetwho was this imposter, and what the heck did he want?
Unfortunately, an answer immediately came to mind. A really bad answer. He might be linked to her late fiancéthe slimy, cheating con man who'd nearly gotten Christopher and Elaina killed.
"Well, don't just sit there," Carrie insisted. She latched on to Elaina's arm to lift her from the chair.
"You haven't seen Daniel in over a year. Comb your hair. Put on some makeup. You have to do something to get ready for him."
The full impact of that hit her like a heavyweight's fist. Elaina got to her feet somehow. She had to do something all right.
She had to get out of there.
She'd have to pick up Christopher from the sitter and drive out of town. There probably wouldn't be time to pack or stop for cash. She'd literally have to leave everything behind.
However, before she could even shake off Carrie's grip, Elaina heard the cheerful jingle of the brass and crystal bells that she'd installed over the front door of her shop. It caused her pulse to pound out of control.
Because it no doubt signaled her fake husband's arrival.
This was her own personal version of judgment day. "Since you don't seem too steady on your feet, I'll bring him in here," Carrie volunteered.
"No!" Elaina caught on to her as she turned to leave.
What remained of Carrie's gleeful expression melted away. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Elaina assured her. Yet another lie. "I just need a minute to compose myself. I thought he was dead." Elaina didn't have to fake an overwhelmed expression. She was sure it was there all over her overwhelmed face.
"I'll be right there," Carrie called out to their visitor. It was something she would have done for any ordinary customer, but this time there was excitement and anticipation in her voice.
Elaina nodded her thanks for the brief reprieve, and she went to the door that separated her office from the stained-glass shop. With Carrie right behind her, she opened the door just a fraction and peeked out.
His back was to her, and he appeared to be examining a Victorian window panel that Elaina had restored just days earlier.
Whoever he was, he was tall. Six-three at least. Not lanky, either. Solid and formidable. He wore jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket that was nearly the same color as his short, efficiently cut hair.
He turned to the side, and Elaina got a good look of him in profile. That good look was more than enough for her to realize that he was a complete stranger. If he was somehow connected to her late fiancé, Kevin, then she'd never seen him before.
That didn't mean she was safe.
She still had to leave with Christopher and find a new hiding place. Because if this man had found her, they could find her.
Elaina blinked back the hot tears that instantly sprang into her eyes, and she silently cursed. Kevin had been dead for over a year, and he was still casting shadows over her life.
"Well?" Carrie prompted in an anxious whisper when Elaina shut the door. "Daniel's here. Aren't you going to run out there, jump into his arms and haul him off to bed?"
Not a chance. The only thing Elaina planned to do was avoid him. "I need you to do me a favor, Carrie. Stall him."
Carrie shook her head. "W-hat? This is the extremely hot husband that you haven't seen in months and months, and you want me to stall him?"
Good point. The next lie came easily. "I need some time to make myself look presentable. I don't want him to see me with pie filling all over me and without a stitch of makeup. I'll only be a minute."
Carrie nodded, eventually, but judging from her bunched up forehead, she didn't understand.
How could she?
And better yet, how would Christopher? Her son was barely three months past his first birthday. He wouldn't know why his mommy was dragging him away from the only home, bed and toys he'd ever known. One day, she'd have to tell him the truth.
If she remembered the truth by then.
Elaina had lived with the lies for so long that she had to wonder what exactly the truth was. Unfortunately, she might never know.
"Don't keep Daniel waiting too long," Carrie insisted. "And by the wayhe is hot, just like I figured he'd be." She gave Elaina a wink and then headed back into the shop.
Elaina didn't waste a second. She locked the door behind Carrie and grabbed her purse from beneath her desk. She also took the picture of her son from the top of the filing cabinet. It was her favorite, taken on his first birthday. She stuffed it in her purse, and while she fumbled around the bottom of the shoulder bag for her car keys, she headed to the back exit that led directly to the parking lot.
She estimated that it would take her ten minutes to get to Christopher. She'd call on the way to tell Theresa, the sitter, that Christopher had an appointment with the pediatrician in nearby Luling. An appointment that had slipped her mind until the last minute. Though it would be a first for her to forget something like that, she hoped it'd be a believable lie. She didn't have time for questions.
Elaina located her keys and threw open the exit door. She heard someone trying to get into her office. Carrie maybe. Or maybe the imposter. Elaina ignored the frantic knocks and raced out of the shop.
The winter air was a little more brisk than she'd figured, and a chilly gust temporarily robbed her of her breath. Goose bumps rifled over her arms. The cotton shirt she wore wasn't much of a barrier. It didn't stop her. She ducked her head against the wind and made a beeline toward her car.
"Going somewhere?" she heard someone ask.
It was a man's voice.
His voice, no doubt.
She didn't freeze, though she had to fight her instincts to prevent that from happening. Instead, Elaina began to run toward her car. Even though her heart was pounding and her shoes were slapping on the concrete, she could still hear his footsteps behind her.
Elaina made it all the way to her car before she felt the beefy hand clamp around her arm. She struggled against the grip and slammed her purse into the man's chest.
It didn't help.
As if she weighed nothing, he caught on to her, whirled her around to face him, and he pinned her against the hood of her car.
She screamed. Or rather tried to do that, but he pressed his hand over her mouth.
No profile view of him this time. She caught the full brunt of those lethal looking granite-gray eyes. In fact, lethal described every part of him from his no trouble determining that he was strong. No extra the shoulder holster and gun that was only partially concealed beneath his leather jacket.
Still, it didn't matter that she was outsized, outmaneuvered and outgunned. She wouldn't give up without a fight. Especially since this man might go after Christopher. Thankfully, the Crystal Creek police station was just up the block from the shop. She'd yell for help and deal with the inevitable questions later.
First though, she had to get free.
She managed to grab on to his wrist, and she ripped his grip from her mouth. "What do you want?" she snarled.
"Elaina Allen, I presume?" He didn't wait for her to confirm or deny it. "Let me introduce myself. I'm your long-lost husband, Captain Daniel Allen."
Oh, there was some cockiness in that voice tinged with a hint of a Texas drawl, but there were also questions. And accusations.
She forced herself to meet him eye to eye. "You're lying, and you know it." "Yeah. I guess I do know it. But the way I see it, both of us have told some big fish stories, and both of us have some explaining to do. You start first."
Elaina was about to tell him that she owed him no such explanation and that he'd better let go of her at once or she'd scream, but then she heard Carrie. She peered over the man's shoulder and spotted Carrie in the doorway of the exit.
Elaina cursed under her breath.
So did the man.
She met his gaze to try to figure out what he was about to do. It was entirely possible he might try to kill Carrie so there wouldn't be any witnesses to Elaina's own murder. If that's what he had planned.
Elaina didn't have to wait long to find out. Much to her shock, the imposter lowered his head and kissed her.