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Cheyenne Rhodes had hoped if she drove far enough she could outrun the darkness. But six hundred miles and counting had done nothing to shake the brooding anxiety that overtook her one unspeakable night a year ago. In her own garage. With a known criminal. And no help in sight.
She circled her head to loosen the knot in her shoulders and shook off the images flickering through her mind like a bad action movie. It was over. He was dead. She had to forget what had happened and start her life again. Somehow.
She shot a glance at the map opened on the seat beside her. Her destination, a small Oklahoma town, couldn' t be too much farther.
She gave a derisive snort. The town was more like a hiding place than a destination. A place far, far from Colorado. A place where her face and name would not be known, would not be plastered on the front pages of the newspaper, where no one cared what she'd done or suffered that one terrible night.
She clicked on the radio, hoping for something cheery to dispel the dark thoughts. Up ahead on the side of the road an overturned cardboard box caught her attention. Next to the box was a pair of waddling puppies. Cheyenne groaned and tried not to look.
After a second, her shoulders slumped.
"Sucker," she mouthed, knowing she wasn't heartless enough to pass them by. She pulled to the side of the empty highway and slammed out of her Honda.
The pups toddled toward her, whining softly. Cheyenne clamped down a surge of pity. Hands on her hips, she stared at them. Poor babies wouldn't last long out here on the highway.
"What am I gonna do with you? I don't even know where the nearest animal shelter is."
One of the pups climbed onto her shoe and, with his round belly and stubby legs, got stuck on high center. He set up such a fuss of wiggles and whines that the other puppy began to cry louder, too. With a groan of surrender, Cheyenne bent down and lifted the tiny dogs against her cheek. The contact with soft, wiggling puppies brought a smile and for that bit of cheer she owed them. They were mutts, but cute ones with black and white spots and upright ears that flopped forward at the tips. Fat bellies and clean coats indicated they'd been dumped recently.
Puppy dumpers were on her list of low-life scum, though nowhere near the top.
"All right, guys—if you are guys—back into the box you go. I' ll give you a lift as far as the next town and then we're done. Deal?"
She had no business taking them in. She didn't want to. But even a tough nut like her couldn't resist a crying puppy.
She crouched beside the box, put the dogs inside and glanced around to be sure no other litter mates had wandered off.
Squinting against the evening sun, she looked down the long stretch of Highway 62 to gauge her location. The pretty road passed verdant rolling hills and distant farmhouses that had grown closer together in the past few miles, a sure sign of approaching civilization. Up ahead, a lazy river flowed beneath an arched bridge, not steel and modern but apparently a throwback to earlier times and made of stone. The foliage increased there, near the river, and the western sunlight glistened on the water. It was a peaceful scene, a scene that beckoned her to explore and relax and forget.
With a huff of annoyance, she shook off the fantastical thoughts. If a change of locales would help her forget, she'd know soon enough. First the puppies.
The town must lie beyond the quaint bridge. Lifting the cardboard box, she stood. As she did, she caught sight of the highway sign just ahead. The shiny green metal beckoned Welcome to Redemption, Oklahoma. Population: 9,425.
Cheyenne squinted hard and read the sign again. She didn't remember seeing that name on the map. But then, she'd chosen her destination by chance. A jab of one finger at the map that was open on the seat beside her and "Bingo!" She'd turned off the interstate and headed down the two-lane toward nowhere. A nowhere with a name like Redemption? The irony wasn't lost on her. She'd driven across three states and wound up in a town called Redemption. Why couldn't the place be called Privacy or Peace? Those were the things she wanted most. Well, those and a good dose of amnesia.
But Redemption? No, she didn't think so. Redemption might be possible for some, but for a woman with her record, it was simply too much to ask.
By the time Cheyenne reached the small town that turned out to be every bit as picturesque as the river bridge, a ball of uncertainty had knotted in her belly. Before last year, she'd never been a worrier, but now paranoia was her constant companion. Had she traveled far enough to outrun her notoriety? Would she find work? Would strangers look at her and know? Would she find someone to take the puppies that had curled into each other and gone fast asleep, their warm smell filling up the car?
As she drove onto the main thoroughfare—a long street flanked on either side by restored nineteenth-century buildings— she was drawn by a cul-de-sac at the far end where the pavement circled a small parklike area. This became her destination. On one side of the park sat a stately old, buff-stone municipal building with a dozen steps to the top. The police station couldn't be far. Someone here could take custody of the pups.
As she parked and exited the Honda, the box of pups in her arms, she scanned the area. Out of long habit and expert training her brain clicked photos and made an assessment. Little stone pathways led into the middle of the town square to a rustic wishing well. Evergreens, neatly clipped grassy areas and park benches interspersed with long planting boxes made of more stone. From them, squatty pink flowers waved in the soft spring breeze and gave off a pleasant spicy scent.
Nice. Pretty. Like a postcard home.
She sighed. Home was no longer an option.
Up the tree-lined street people moved in and out of the vintage shops, stopping to chat now and then. Car doors slammed. Engines cranked. A blue Buick curved around the circle and parked in front of the Redemption Register, a newspaper office.
The town looked peaceful, law-abiding and safe. The tight muscles in her shoulders relaxed. She started up the sidewalk past a giant green trash receptacle.
"Grab that cartridge, G.I." The booming male voice seemed to come out of nowhere.
Every hair on the back of Cheyenne's neck stood at attention. She whirled and slapped at her side before remembering that her weapon no longer rode there. Frantically searching for the source of the unexpected voice, she spotted a man's head, wearing an old army cap, as he popped up from inside the Dumpster. Another head, this one wearing a headlamp, popped up beside him. The two tossed out several items and then followed them over the side of the receptacle.
Cheyenne stared in stunned amazement, the shiver of fear turning to incredulity. Two grungy old bums Dumpster-diving right here in the middle of town? Where were the cops? Wasn't diving in trash cans against the law in Redemption?
Her frozen stare must have caught the divers' attention. Both studied her with open interest, neither looking the least bit guilty of committing a crime.
"Lookie here, Popbottle," the man with the green army cap said. "We got us a newcomer."
The Popbottle character reached up to flick off his headlamp, his long, skinny neck the likely source of his nickname. "Then I suggest we say hello and find out what's in the box."
The men started forward and Cheyenne unwittingly took a step back, pulse jittery, before she caught herself and stopped. She refused to be afraid of two old men. They were in broad daylight, not in a dark garage with no one near to help.
She gave them her best hard-eyed cop stare. Neither appeared the least bit intimidated.
In amazingly proper English the headlamp man said, "Hello, my dear. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Ulysses E. Jones, though my compatriots refer to me as Popbottle. And this—" he made a sweeping gesture with a gloved hand "—is my business partner, G. I. Jack. How may we address you?"
Cheyenne opened and closed her mouth twice before deciding that truth was best, though the sentiment had not served her particularly well in the past year. If she stayed in this town, people would ask her name.
"Cheyenne Rhodes." If she sounded defensive, she couldn't help it.
Neither man so much as blinked. A huge relief, though she didn't relax her guard.
The one called Popbottle said, "A pleasure, I'm sure, Miss Cheyenne Rhodes. Pardon my directness but you're looking a bit flummoxed. Can we be of service?"
Only if you can turn back time, she thought bitterly.
"Me and Popbottle knows everyone in Redemption," the other one said. "Just ask away. Who you looking for?"
Well, she might as well ask them. In her previous job, street people were often the most useful resource. "I'm trying to find the local police department or an animal control officer."
"Animal control?" The two men edged closer, attention focused on the scratching noise coming from the cardboard box. "What you got there?"
G. I. Jack, his army jacket billowing open, leaned forward. Cheyenne prepared to be overwhelmed by body odor, but the only smell coming from the old bum was that of the French fry container she spied in his shirt pocket. The puppies noticed, too, and tried to crawl up the side of the box, whimpering.
"Lookie here, Popbottle, she's got puppies." Childlike delight filled the man's voice. "Two of 'em."
Popbottle Jones peered into the box as well, one hand holding his miner's lamp in place.
"I found them on the side of the road outside town. Is there an animal shelter here?"
"Yep," G. I. Jack said, brow puckered. "But you can't take 'em there."
The old man wagged his grizzled gray head back and forth and then made a cutting motion across his throat. "Death row."
"Oh." Distress filled her. "Too bad, but I can't keep them."
She knew she sounded heartless and she really wasn't. However, she was a realist. There were, sadly, far too many irresponsible dog owners who allowed dogs to breed and then dumped the pups. The end result was not pretty.
"Why not?" G. I. Jack drew back, his dark, weathered face insulted. "You got something against innocent little dogs? 'Tweren't their fault someone dumped them like…" He paused, blinking as if baffled for a comparison. "Well, like stray pups."
"I'm in the process of moving," she said, a little too sharply. "I have no place for dogs." And she didn't want two old bums making her feel bad about it. She had enough guilt without adding puppies to the list.
"No one's blaming you, Miss Cheyenne," Popbottle Jones said in a conciliatory voice. "Dilemmas such as these occur. Allow me a moment to ponder." He tapped the edge of the box, his fingers protruding from the ends of tattered gloves. The puppies stretched up toward him, noses in the air. "Ah, yes. Take them over to Doc Bowman's animal clinic. He'll know what to do."
"Yep. He' ll know." G. I. Jack brightened, his old head bobbing again. Apparently, Popbottle Jones did the thinking and G. I. Jack did the head bobbing. "Last time Petunia ate a pair of socks, Doc fixed her right up. Didn't he, Popbottle?"
"Indeed he did."
Cheyenne wasn' t about to ask about Petunia or her predilection for eating socks. Relieved to have a plan of action and eager to get on her way, she asked, "Where would I find this Dr. Bowman?"
Popbottle Jones pointed toward the east. "On the edge of town, about a half mile. Just follow Hope Avenue to Mercy Street."
It was all she could do not to roll her eyes. She puffed out a dry laugh. She was in a town called Redemption with virtuous street names like Hope and Mercy. Did these people actually believe that stuff?
As she climbed into her car, a tweak of conscience poked at her.
A long time ago, she'd believed in those things, too.
As the newcomer pulled away from the curb, Popbottle Jones rubbed his chin and watched her, knowingly. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
G. I. Jack adjusted the bill of his cap, his focus also on the disappearing blue car. "Yep."
"Miss Cheyenne Rhodes is in trouble."
"That's trouble, G.I."
"Yep. I've known soldiers like that. Walking wounded." He picked up a gunnysack of scavenged goods and hoisted the day's finds over one shoulder.
"My thoughts exactly." Popbottle Jones gave a wise nod and reached for his own sack. "Which means she's come to exactly the right place."
Trace Bowman had never once regretted his decision to become a country veterinarian, but days like today stretched him to his limits. After a midnight house call to a local ranch, the clinic had been hopping with patients all day. Springtime brought puppies and calves and lambing ewes plus all manner of accidents, and as the only vet in town, he saw them all.
"Give her one of these morning and evening and bring her back to get the stitches out in about a week." He stroked the still drowsy cat who'd had an unfortunate run-in with the radiator fan of her owner's car. She was lucky to have come out with only a gash on her side.
"Thank you, Doctor. I'm sorry to keep you here so late. You look done in."
With a grin, he scraped a weary hand down his face and heard the scratch of unshaved beard. No doubt, he looked worse than his patients. After the midnight emergency at Herman Wagner's farm, he'd arrived at the clinic in time for the first surgery but not in time for morning ablutions. He'd done little more than scrub up and toss on a lab coat. He probably smelled worse than his patients, too. Without his mom to look after Zoey during those all-nighters, Trace didn't know what he would do.
"No problem, Mrs. James. That's what I'm here for. Call me if Precious needs anything else." His staff had left an hour ago, but that was typical. With his house located next to the clinic, he was frequently the one who left last and locked up.
After Mrs. James's departure, he made the rounds through the clinic, pausing to grin up at the lopsided sign hanging over the reception desk. Today is the Best Day Ever. He made a point to read the message morning and night as a reminder that each day was whatever he made of it. He'd learned that lesson the hard way. No matter how weary he was or how hectic the workload, he was a blessed man.
"Thanks, Lord," he murmured and continued his rounds.