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"Mama! Maamaa!" Ryan's scream tore through her fog of sleep.
Beth Allen was out of bed and across the room before she'd even fully opened her eyes. Heart pounding, she lifted her two-year-old son out of the secondhand crib, pressing his face into her neck as she held him.
"It's okay, Ry," she said softly, pushing the sweaty auburn curls away from his forehead. Curls she dyed regularly, along with her own. "Shh, Mama's right here. It was just a bad dream."
"Mama," the toddler said again, his little body shuddering. His tiny fists were clamped tightly against her—her nightshirt and strands of her straight auburn hair held securely within them.
"Mama" was what he'd said when she'd woken up alone with him in that motel room in Snowflake, Arizona, with a nasty bruise on her forehead, another one at the base of her skull. And no memory whatsoever.
She didn't even know her own name. She'd apparently checked in under the name Beth Allen and, trusting herself to have done so for a reason, had continued using it. It could be who she really was, but she doubted it. She'd obviously been on the run, and it didn't seem smart to have made herself easy to find.
She didn't know how old she was. How old her son was. She could only guess Ry's age by comparing him to other kids.
Stoically, Beth stood there, rocking him slowly, crooning soothingly, until she felt the added weight that signified his slumber. Looking at the crib—old brown wood whose scars were visible even in the dim August moonlight coming through curtainless windows—Beth knew she should put him back there, should do all she could to maintain some level of normalcy.
But she didn't. She carried the baby back to the twin bed she'd picked up at a garage sale, snuggled him against her too-skinny body beneath the single sheet and willed herself back to sleep.
In that motel room in Snowflake, she'd seen a magazine article about a young woman who'd run away from an abusive husband. Like someone drawn in mingled horror and fascination to the sight of a car crash, she'd read the whole thing—and been greatly touched to find that it had a happy ending. The woman had run to someplace called Shelter Valley, Arizona.
Desperate enough to try anything, Beth had done the same.
But after six months of covering her blond hair and hiding her amnesia, she was no closer to her happy ending.
Neither, apparently, was her son. Spooning his small body up against her, she tried to convince herself that he was okay.
Ryan had only had a nightmare. Could have been about monsters in the closet or a ghost in the attic. Except that the one-bedroom duplex she was renting had neither a closet nor an attic.
No, there was something else haunting her child, giving him these nightmares.
It was the same thing that was haunting her.
Beth just didn't have any idea what it was.
Nearly blinded by the sun-brightened landscape, Sheriff Greg Richards scanned the horizon, missing nothing between him and the mountains in the distance.
A young woman had been rear-ended, forced off the road. And when she'd rolled to a stop, two assailants had pushed her into the rear of her Chevy Impala. She'd never even seen the car that hit her; she had been overtaken too quickly by the men who'd jumped out of its back seat to notice the vehicle driving off.
Stillness. That was all Greg's trained eye saw. Brownish-green desert brush. Dry, thorny plants that were tough enough to survive the scorching August sun. Cacti.
Another desert carjacking. The third in three months. A run of them—just like that summer ten years before. Yet… different. This time, instead of ending up dead or severely injured, the victim, Angela Marquette, had thrown herself out of the car. She'd flagged down a passing car and used a cell phone to call for help.
Greg continued to scan the surrounding area, but there was no sign of the new beige Impala. Not on the highway—patrols had been notified across the state—nor in the form of glinting metal underneath the scarred cacti and other desert landscaping that had witnessed hideous brutalities over the years. In the places it was thickest, a hijacked car or two, even an occasional dead body, could easily slide beneath it undetected.
Patrol cars and an ambulance ahead signaled the location of the victim. Pulling his unmarked car off the road and close to the group of emergency personnel, Greg got out. The immediate parting of the crowd always surprised him; he hadn't been the sheriff of Shelter Valley long enough to get used to it.
As he approached the victim, he noticed that she was shaking and in shock. And sweating, too. The young woman, her brown hair in a ponytail, leaned against one of the standard-issue cars from his division. One of the paramedics shook his head as Greg caught his eye. Apparently she'd refused medical attention.
"Angela, I'm Sheriff Richards," he said gently when her gaze, following those of his deputies, landed on him.
"We've got her full report." Deputy Burt Culver stepped up to Greg. "We just finished." Burt, only a few years older than Greg, had been with the Kachina County Sheriff's Department when Greg had first worked there as a junior deputy. Other than a short stint with Detention Services—at the one and only jail in Kachina County's jurisdiction—Burt had been content to work his way up in Operations, concentrating mostly on criminal investigations. He was one of the best.
Culver had never expressed much interest in administration, had never run for Sheriff, but Greg was hoping to talk him into accepting a promotion to Captain over Operations. No one else would be as good.
Greg glanced down at the report. "This is a number where we can reach you during the day?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," the young woman replied, her voice as shaky as her hands. "And at night, as well. I'm a student at the University of Arizona. I live at home with my parents."
"The car was theirs?" Greg asked her. Chevy Impalas weren't cheap. Certainly not the usual knock-around college vehicle. She would probably have been perfectly safe in one of those. These hijackers didn't go for low-end cars.
"No, sir, it's mine. I also work as a dance instructor in Tucson."
Greg looked over the pages Burt had handed him, confident that everything was complete. That he wasn't needed here, at the scene of the crime. Still, he thumbed through the report.
Two men had done the actual hijacking. Young, in their late teens or early twenties. One Caucasian. A blonde. The other had darker skin, brown eyes and black hair. They'd both been wearing wallet chains, faded jeans—in the one-hundred and ten degree heat—ripped tank T-shirts, medallions. The blonde—the driver—had a tattoo on his left biceps and he'd been wearing dirty white tennis shoes. They'd had her radio blaring.
"Neither of them spoke to you?"
The young woman shook her head, the movement almost spastic. Other than a couple of bruises, she'd escaped physically unharmed. But she'd probably carry mental scars for the rest of her life. Greg stared into the distance for a moment, focusing his concentration. He was the sheriff now. Personal feelings were irrelevant.
The carjackers of ten years ago had been silent, as well. No accents to give any clue that might imply one social group or school over another.
"I just remembered something," the girl said, her brown eyes almost luminescent as she struggled against tears and sunshine to look up at him. "Just after they pushed me…over the seat…one of them said something…about this 'counting double.' They turned the radio on at the same time and I was so scared… I could be wrong…." She shook her head, eyes clouded as she frowned up at him. "Maybe I'm not remembering anything at all."
"Are you sure you wouldn't like the paramedics to take a look at you?" Greg asked.
She shook her head again. "I'm fine…just a little sore…" She attempted a smile. "I called my parents." Her words suddenly came in a rush. "They're on their way to get me."
Nodding, Greg handed the report back to a sweating Culver. "See that I have a copy of this on my desk ASAP," he said, then added, "Wait here until her folks arrive. I want them to be able to get the assurances they'll undoubtedly need from the man in charge, not from a junior officer."
"Got it, Chief."
Unsettled, dissatisfied, glad only that Culver was in charge, Greg gave the young woman his own card with the invitation to call if she needed anything now or in the future, and headed back to his car.
He could keep trying to pretend that this case wasn't personal, but either way, he was going to get these guys. There was simply no other choice. With every carjacking that went unsolved, there was a greater chance that another would follow.
That was the professional reason he wasn't going to rest until the perpetrators were caught.
And the personal one…
His father's death had to be avenged.
He entered Shelter Valley city limits an hour later and drove slowly through town, glancing as he always did, at the statue of the town's founder, Samuel Montford, that had appeared while he'd been away.
There was no reason for Greg to stop by Little Spirits Day Care. Bonnie, founder and owner of the only child-care facility in Shelter Valley—and Greg's only sibling—would be busy with all the "little spirits" in her care, doing the myriad things an administrator at a day care did.
He pulled up at Little Spirits, anyway. It was Friday. After a week of day care, maybe Katie, his three-year-old niece, needed to be sprung.
Even if she didn't, Bonnie would pretend she did. Bonnie understood.
Sometimes Greg just needed a dose of innocence and warmth, sweetness and love, to counteract the rest of his world.
"Dispatch to 11:15…" The words came just as Greg was swinging shut the driver's door. With an inner groan, he caught the door, sank onto the seat again and listened.
Two minutes later, he was back on the road. There was a warrant out for Bob Mather's arrest. As far as Greg knew, the man he'd graduated from high school with hadn't been in Shelter Valley for more than five years, but his parents' place was listed as his last known address.
Which meant Greg had to pay the sweet-natured older couple yet another unpleasant visit, when he should've been watching ice cream drip down Katie's dimpled chin.
This was not a good day.
Toilets weren't her specialty. But Beth made the white porcelain bowl, the fifth she'd faced that day, shine, anyway. A job is only worth doing if it's done right.
Beth squirted a little glass cleaner on the chrome piping and handle to make them glisten, then wiped efficiently, satisfied when she saw an elongated version of what she supposed was her chin in the spotless flush handle. She ignored the pull she felt as the quote ran through her mind again. A job is only worth doing if it's done right.
How did she know that? Had someone said it to her? Many times? Her mother or father, perhaps? A boss?
There was no point traveling in that direction. The blankness in her mind was not going to supply the answer. And Beth didn't dare look anywhere else.
But she made a mental note to write the thought down in her notebook when she got home that night. Because these obscure recollections were her only link with a reality she couldn't find, she was cataloguing everything she remembered—any hint that returned to her from a past she couldn't access.
And making up new rules to live by, as well. Creating herself.
Bucket full of cleaning supplies in hand, Beth blew at the strand of hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail. Only one more bathroom to go, and Beth's Basins could chalk up another good day's work. She still had to vacuum the Mathers' carpets and water mop the ceramic tile in the kitchen and baths, but those jobs weren't particularly noteworthy. Beth measured the progress of her day by bathrooms.
The doorbell rang in the front of the house. Stopping only to rinse her hands in the sink she had yet to clean, Beth wiped her palms along the legs of her overall shorts and hurried to the door. The Mathers had told her they were expecting a package, and she didn't want to disappoint them by failing to get to the door in time.
The man waiting outside was uniformed in brown, but he wasn't the UPS deliveryman she'd been expecting.
"Sheriff?" Between the hammering of her heart and the fear in her throat, she barely got the word out. His face was grim.
Ryan! He has to be okay! They can't take him! Have they found me out? What do they know that I don't? The thoughts buzzed loudly, making her dizzy.
She almost relaxed a notch when Greg Richard's stern expression softened.
"I didn't know the Mathers were one of your clients."
"Just this month," she said. He hadn't known she was working there. So he hadn't come after her.
But then… that meant he was there to see the sweet older couple she'd met in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center at Montford University six weeks before.
"I take it Bob, Sr. and Clara aren't home?" he asked.
He had the most intense dark green eyes.
Still holding the door, Beth told him, "They went to Phoenix to have lunch and see a movie." She frowned. "Is something wrong?" Bob, Sr. had lost both his parents during the past few months. Surely they'd had their share of bad news for a while.
Greg shook his head, but Beth had a feeling that it was the "I'm not at liberty to say" kind of gesture rather than the "no" she'd been seeking.
"I just need to ask them a couple of questions," he added, "but it sounds like they'll be gone most of the afternoon." His gaze was warm, personal.
"I got that impression."
Hands in his pockets, Greg didn't leave. "I'll catch them later tonight, then. If you don't mind, please don't mention that I've been by."
"Of course not." Beth never—ever—put her nose in other people's business. She didn't know if this was a newly acquired trait or one she'd brought with her into this prison of oblivion. "I won't be seeing or talking to them, anyway. I just leave their key under the mat when I'm through here."
"So what time would that be?"
Beth glanced at her watch—not that it was going to tell her what jobs she had left or how long they would take. "Within the hour." She was due to pick Ryan up from the Willises at five.
Ryan couldn't be enrolled in the day care in town. Not only was Beth living a lie, without even a social security number, but she couldn't take a chance on signing any official papers that might allow someone to trace her.