Stealing a pickup truck, newly widowed Abby McMurray hopes to escape her abusive brother-in-law. But the vehicle's owner and his attack dog halt her plans. She knows she's made a terrible mistake. Yet there's something tender about the stranger that makes her feel safe.
K-9 deputy Cade Latimer senses Abby isn't a criminal. And when he sees her bruises, he knows she's running from someone. Physically and emotionally scarred from a botched investigation, Cade has his own demons. Yet he can't resist protecting the gentle woman who's capturing his heart. But little do they know, Abby's brother-in-law will go to any lengths to track Abby down .
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The last straw was a single, ridiculous button.
Abby shifted the paper grocery sack in her arms as she stepped out of the convenience store. The hard plastic cap of the orange juice nudged at just the wrong place, the curve under her biceps where the bruises had never quite faded in the past few months. No bruises where they couldn't be covered. Long practice brought skill. She moved the sack again, and a button burst from her worn chambray shirt.
She followed the button's freewheeling path across the concrete sidewalk until it plummeted off the curb. It bounced across the white stripe of a parking space and into the black shadow beneath a pickup truck. With a sigh, Abby went around the half-open driver's door, looking apologetically into the cab. How to explain she needed the driver to move the truck so she could find a button? She couldn't come home from the store with that particular button missing, right at the shadowed hollow between her breasts-well. It was unthinkable. Her mind raced ahead, picturing the scenario. She could drop the button on the floor when she put the sack on the kitchen counter, as if it had come loose at that very moment. The trick could work, but only if she had the button.
The pickup was empty.
With the keys in the ignition, and the engine running.
The shimmering brilliance of an impossible, desperate solution forced all the air out of Abby's lungs.
Abby didn't glance toward the store or look around for the truck's driver. She dumped the grocery bag into the passenger seat and hoisted herself in behind the wheel, feeling the soreness in her arms and back. She yanked the door closed and settled into the seat.
Three pedals on the floor, gearshift in neutral on the column, parking brake set.
Her heart lurched. She couldn't let herself think beyond the physical mechanics of making the truck go. She stretched her leg to stomp the clutch, studied the gearshift a moment and worked it into reverse. Maybe six years since she'd driven a manual transmission, and months since she'd driven at all. The bank repossessed the car when she couldn't make the payments, but before that there'd been a series of repairs that consumed the meager savings she and her husband, Gary, had scraped together. What didn't go into the adult day care business went to the mechanic.
Fate was kind. Abby managed not to stall as the truck groaned into reverse out of the parking space. She rode the crow-hopping lurches into first gear, pulling herself close to the steering wheel because the seat was too far back, but there was no time to adjust it. Something heavy fell over in the covered bed of the truck and Abby felt a gut-punch of guilt.
She was stealing a truck.
This wasn't in the same league as keeping the change she found in the washing machine or behind sofa cushions, or filching a five from the grocery money when she thought Marsh wouldn't notice. This was a felony. Grand theft, auto, her rap sheet would read.
Was she out of her mind?
How fast could she get out of sight? It wouldn't be long before the truck's owner called the police- minutes, maybe.
How bad could jail be, in comparison with her life?
Left turn from the parking lot. Left again at the four-way stop, hands jittering on the wheel, stomach churning. Then straight on to the interstate, heading north, grinding gears as her speed increased.
A few miles past the town line, still hunched over the steering wheel, Abby realized the roar she was hearing was the truck's engine under strain. She was pushing ninety, screaming to be noticed by the highway patrol, followed by a ticket if she were very lucky, more likely arrested when she couldn't produce insurance and registration. She stood out like a white gull on blacktop, in the red truck on the mostly empty road. She had to calm down, think about what came next.
She rolled down the window to catch the breeze, too stressed to decipher the air-conditioning controls. The Florida summer heat was making her dizzy. She needed to get her heart rate down. Try to still the shaking in her hands and stop jerking the truck all over the lane, another attention-getter she couldn't afford.
First things first. Get off the interstate, travel the secondary roads. Keep moving. Head for Gainesville, maybe, a bigger town than Wildwood, where she could ditch the truck and use public transportation. She wondered if there was a map in the glove box. She was so overwhelmed by what she'd done that she couldn't remember the names of towns in the county where she'd lived more than half her life.
Money would be an issue immediately. She didn't dare use the credit card-it would give her away. In the hip pocket of her jeans there was only the envelope of fifty-odd dollars, whatever she'd managed to scrounge in the past fifteen months. She had the change from the two twenties Gary's brother, Marsh, had given her for the market. Whenever she left the house, she always carried her stash with her. She knew Marsh went through her room. Any day he might find the loose baseboard molding in the back of the closet where she had cut a small hole in the drywall and hidden her hoard. Marsh.
How did he know she needed the anchor of his touch when he tucked her hand in his elbow? The reality of his wool suit jacket. The faint humidity Abby could sense there at the bend of his arm, with her fingers gently covered by his free hand. She 'd thought she was done with tears, until the motorized hoist began to lower Gary's coffin into the earth. It seemed somehow sterile and impolite for a funeral to be such an automated and regulated event.
Marsh understood. She heard him draw a harsh breath as the casket's top slipped below ground level. His hand tightened on hers. How could they just put Gary into the earth? How could they cover him up with foot after foot of dirt? She couldn't breathe, thinking about it.
Thank God Marsh was here. She 'd still be dithering uselessly about whether red or white satin should line the box where Gary would lie forever, never turning his too-hot pillow to the cooler side.
Marsh. Damn his rat-bastard-needed-to-be-shot hide.
And while she was at it, damn her own stupid hide for skidding down the slippery slope that had led to this moment, careening along the interstate in a stolen pickup, in the middle of the hottest summer she could remember, roasting in the long sleeves that covered the bruises. The only positive was that the tears, so quick to spring since Gary died, were nowhere to be found.
A green marker sign grew in the distance, and Abby recognized something at last: Micanopy, an even smaller, more backward town than Wildwood. She recalled a narrow road winding through pecan orchards, the occasional orange grove and state forestland. It would eventually lead to Gainesville. She eased her foot off the accelerator and signaled for the exit. Only a mile down the narrow road was an intersection with a numbered state forest road. She paused, checking for other cars, thinking hard. From a camping trip in the early days of her marriage to Gary, Abby recalled a campground several miles into the state forest. If nothing else, its location next to a tea-dark river would help calm her. Flowing water always did. She had to get control of herself before she did something even more stupid.
Abby downshifted and turned the truck off the paved road onto the graded gray marl of the forestry access. The tires raised clouds of silty dust in the heat, and she slowed even more to leave less of a trail, as if Marsh could see her from Wildwood. Best to get out of sight altogether while she took stock of her situation. And maybe, just maybe, leave the truck behind and make her way back to Micanopy. She could hitchhike into Gainesville. It wouldn't be safe, but at least she wouldn't be caught in a stolen truck.
The unpaved road was in poor condition. Summer downpours had rutted it from crown to edge, jouncing her, jarring her torso and tossing the heavy things in the bed of the truck around again. Twenty minutes later she located the loop drive of the tiny campground and circled it, glad to find the place completely empty. With a shuddering sigh of relief, Abby circled a second time and angle-parked the truck into the most secluded of the eight campsites to conceal its license plates. She turned off the engine. For a long moment she stared at the river flowing past thirty feet away, watching a water-darkened stick curl downstream. Then she put her head on the steering wheel and gave in to the shakes that had threatened to overtake her for the past hour and a half.
She, Abigail McMurray, former straight-A student and all-around good egg, had stolen a truck.
She'd run away from home, what little remained of it now that she'd given up so much to Marsh. A giant bubble of guilt welled and burst in her chest. Those poor people, the adults who came to the house for day care and respite for their own caregivers. Only Marsh was there now. She was horrified to think he might take out his ire on one of the sweet people who trusted her to shelter them, feed them healthy meals and make sure Rosemary didn't hog the DVD remote during Movie Hour.
She should turn around, now, and go back.
She couldn't turn around now and go back.
But she could. After dark she could go home, leave the truck in the drugstore parking lot a mile from the convenience store where she'd taken it and sneak away. After wiping down the interior to remove her fingerprints. She could leave a note of apology and money for gas. The police would find the truck soon enough. It could all go away. It would be as if it had never happened.
Except for Marsh's anger. His anger, and his fists.
Abby's stomach clenched. Her mouth was dry. She'd been gritting her teeth for miles and miles-a monstrous tension headache throbbed at her temples. Maybe some juice would help. She started to reach for the jug, but it only reminded her of the impetus for her flight.
She bit her lip and grabbed the jug anyway, wrenching it open with fierce determination, and downed several swallows of the juice. It was only orange juice, after all, not an enemy, not a symbol, not Marsh's grip. When she had capped the jug again, she got out of the truck to stretch her legs and face what she'd done head-on. Time to be practical about it all . If she wasn't going to take the truck back, she might as well see if anything in the pickup bed could be of any use to her in her new life of crime.
The fork, covered with mayonnaise and bits of tuna, clattered into the sink with a noise that hurt her ears. Abby felt the familiar black wave of grief submerge her. It was all too much. Tuna. Peanut butter. Sandwiches. Tomato soup. Toast. Apple wedges. Cheese. Celery sticks. Wheelchairs. Adult diapers. Tantrums. Seizures. Without Gary, it was too much.
"What is it? What's wrong, Abigail?"
"I can't. I need Gary. I can't do this."
"You can. We can. Look, I'm here. Just tell me how many tuna sandwiches? "
Abby slid down the cupboard doors by the sink and sat on the floor with her knees drawn up and her head pressed against them. "I don't know."
Marsh put a warm hand on her shoulder. "Then tell me who gets peanut butter. I can manage that, I know. Come on, Abigail. It'll be all right. All we need is time." His voice was serene and placid. When he spoke, she could think again. Maybe it would work. Maybe all it took was time. Maybe he was right. He smelled like Gary. She wiped her eyes against the knees of her jeans.
"Rosemary. Rosemary gets peanut butter. Joe gets tuna."
"Good, good. The older guy, is his name Smith? What kind of sandwich does he get?"
The old red truck had a white camper shell over the bed of the pickup. Tinted windows prevented her from peering in, so she went to the back of the truck and turned the handle, lifting the hatch
and found herself staring into the unwavering barrel of a pistol, held beneath the grimmest, bluest gaze she'd ever seen, a blue gaze bracketed on one side by a starburst of corrugated scar tissue, and a smear of blood on the other. Standing at the shoulder of the man with the gun was a German shepherd, teeth bared and hackles raised.
When his pickup lurched into motion, Cade Latimer toppled from his crouch, striking his head on the big green toolbox. He had left the K-9 training facility outside Bushnell a few minutes ago and had pulled off the interstate at the Wildwood exit only to get a bad cup of convenience store coffee for the road and give Mort a snack and a drink of water. He'd climbed into the bed of the truck to tend to Mort before they got back on the road to head to the northeast corner of Alabama for some decent hill country hiking, fishing and camping.
His first reaction was to right himself and lunge for the back of the truck-he must have forgotten to set the parking brake, and the truck had slipped into reverse. He had a vision of his truck rolling slowly out of control and into the street, causing the sort of stupid accident he had always hated to see while on patrol duty in the sheriff's department. Before his undercover days, how many times had he lectured drivers about putting on their thinking caps before getting behind the wheel of a two-ton killing machine? But then he got a glimpse of someone in the cab of his pickup, behind the wheel, and realized something else was going on. Something illegal.
For a moment Cade couldn't believe it was happening. Surely no one in this Podunk, backwater, stuck-in-the-Depression town would steal a truck. Weren't small-town folk supposed to be as honest as the day was long? A second lurching hop sent him flat again. Mort scrabbled uselessly, claws squealing against metal as the truck fishtailed onto the road. Cade reached out to steady his dog and spoke the command for the German shepherd to lie down. Warm wetness trickled down from Cade's scalp. He'd cut himself on the metal toolbox.
One last bump, then the truck's motion smoothed and Cade ventured to look out the side window. Interstate. Passing swiftly. Damn it.
He peered through the darkly tinted camper shell window into the cab of the truck and wished-not for the first time-that he'd had the cab's window replaced with a slider. Most often he thought about that when he wanted to check on Mort while the truck was in motion, but now he wanted the slider so he could strangle the jerk who'd stolen his truck.
With Cade in it, no less.
Cade expected to see some punk-ass kid, maybe two, with cigarettes hanging loosely from their lips and leaving ash all over his vintage bench seat, out for a joyride with a six-pack of cheap beer. Instead, he saw the clean profile of a woman, light brown hair scraped back in a bobbing ponytail that brushed her back below her shoulder blades, and in the seat next to her wobbled a sack of groceries.
Some redneck soccer mom had stolen his truck. Maybe she was drunk already, though it wasn't even ten in the morning, and confused which truck in the parking lot was hers.