When Peter Ash rescues a stranded woman, he finds she’s in far deeper trouble than he could ever imagine in the powerful new thriller in this bestselling and award-winning series.
War veteran Peter Ash is driving through northern Nebraska when he encounters a young pregnant woman alone on a gravel road, her car dead. Peter offers her a lift, but what begins as an act of kindness soon turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse chase across the lonely highways with the woman’s vicious ex-cop husband hot on their trail. The pregnant woman has seen something she was never meant to see . . . but protecting her might prove to be more than Peter can handle.
In order to save the woman and himself, Peter must use everything he has learned during his time as a Marine, including his knowledge of human nature, in order to escape a ruthless killer with instincts and skills that match—and perhaps exceed—Peter’s own.
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“Wake up, girl.”
Helene startled on the stool and jerked upright, blinking, from the pillow of her folded arms. The magazine under her elbows fell to the floor with a slap.
A man stood on the far side of the register. He wore a faded green John Deere cap over a scraggly blond beard that crept up his cheeks. She'd never heard the bell on the door. Helene was so damn tired she could snore through a tornado. That's what happened when you worked two jobs.
It was four in the morning. She was a few days shy of nineteen.
John Deere lingered a couple of steps back, a six-pack of Coke in one hand and a bag of beer nuts in the other, somehow watching her without staring at her. Not like the other customers, who put their fat bellies right up to the edge of the countertop, trying to get as close to her as they could. Running their eyes all over her like she was theirs for the taking.
"Honey, I could have stole you blind." His face didn't change but she could feel his concern.
"Like I give a crap." She wiped the sleep from her eyes, then waved a hand at the goods on display. "None of this is my shit. Steal what you want. I couldn't care less."
He glanced around like he was halfway considering it. Beer and soda in rattling coolers, bins of half-sprouted potatoes and half-rotted onions, cans of Campbell's soup and Hormel chili with the expiration dates scratched off the labels. Bogaloosa's Gas and Grocery, the crossroads of no place and nowhere.
Finally he stepped up and set his things on the counter where milky, peeling tape covered the sample lottery tickets. "Well, not today, I reckon. Wouldn't want to get you into trouble." Dirty-blond hair curled out from under the cap, but his eyes were so dark they were almost black. A faded blue farm coat hung unzipped over a plain gray sweatshirt.
"Mister, I got nothing but trouble already," she said. "You can't begin to add to it." Then tried to smile as if it were a joke and looked away. Don't be a complainer, her mom had always said. It scares away the good luck and invites the bad.
She watched him think of how to answer her, then decide not to. She liked him for that. No empty platitudes like the sweaty minister at the food pantry who talked up the rewards of heaven while sneaking peeks down her flannel shirt. She didn't say anything because she needed the mac and cheese. Caught between pride and hunger, she didn't have much choice.
John Deere tipped a thumb toward the door and his coat fell open. She caught a glimpse of a gun on his belt, not unusual in Montana, where half the population carried a pistol and the rest had a rifle in their truck or at home. Somehow she knew he wasn't a lawman. "I need to fuel up, too," he said. "Sign outside says pay in advance?"
Bogaloosa had long ago decided that it was cheaper to be open all night, paying his employees next to nothing, rather than upgrade the ancient pumps to self-serve automatic.
Helene picked up the cheap binoculars chained to the counter and peered out the window into the relentless night. A big four-door pickup was parked on the far side of the pumps, hitched to a long windowless cargo trailer, a newer truck than most driving that lonely road. Judging from the mud splatter and dead bugs, he'd come a long way. She wondered where he'd been and where he was going.
"Gas is free today," she said. "You want cigarettes? A pint of Jim Beam? Video rentals? On the house, I won't say a word."
He took off his hat and used the brim to scratch his head. He had good hair, blond and wavy. Movie star hair, her mom would have called it. He regarded her steadily. "I guess you're some kind of hard case," he said.
"Damn right I am." She stuck her chin out. She had her daddy's gun in her bag. "You want to find out, you just try me."
He smiled then, a bright ray of sun that warmed her in the cold night. "Honey, I wouldn't dream of it."
Most men couldn't stop staring at her tits, full-grown and bothersome in more ways than one, no matter how she tried to hide them under baggy clothes. Back when she'd still gone to school, she watched the way older girls used their bodies, how they arched their backs and twitched their hips to get boys to look at them. By the time Helene turned thirteen, she had the opposite problem. Too many men paying too much attention, thinking they could reach out and touch her any time they wanted. It only got worse every year. The late-night customers, the food pantry preacher, the old farts at the library, goddamn Bogaloosa. Especially Bogaloosa.
But this man's eyes hadn't left her face. She wondered how old he was. Under thirty, anyway. She wondered what he looked like under that beard. She wondered why she cared, or what difference any of it made.
"My name's not honey, or girl," she said. "It's Helene. Hella for short." What her mom used to call her.
"Hella," he said. "That certainly suits you." His smile got wider and she found herself basking in its glow. "But I don't guess I'll take your gas for nothing. I wouldn't want the sheriff on my trail." He took his wallet from his hip pocket. "Give me fifty gallons, please."
She raised her eyebrows. "That much?" In this lean and hungry place, most people only bought ten gallons at a time.
"Truck's got dual tanks, sixty-six gallons total," he said. "Gives us a lot of range, even hauling that trailer. We work all over."
She wanted to ask him what kind of work he did, just to keep him talking for a few more minutes. Just to see that smile. But she didn't. He might think he could take something from her, the same thing they all wanted. Better to keep him as he was, a stranger passing through. She could think of him from time to time, that was all. Warm herself with the pretend memory that he wasn't like every other man she'd ever met.
She rang him up and he licked his thumb to slide wrinkled fifties from his billfold. She couldn't help but notice he had a lot more cash in there. After she gave him his change and bagged his groceries, he nodded his thanks and headed out, elbow cocked and coat shucked aside to return his wallet to his pocket, fully exposing the gun in its black leather holster.
Halfway to the door, he paused, his elbow stopped mid-movement. Then he turned around and came back to the counter with the wallet still in his hand.
Helene's heart sank. John Deere was no different from the rest, thinking she might be for sale like all the other cheap trash in the store, and if they offered enough money she would let them do what they wanted.
He licked his thumb again and slipped a bill partway out, considered it a moment, then added two more. Bent them together lengthwise and laid them gently on the counter. She didn't touch them. They were hundreds, crisp and new. She'd never seen three at once before. When he put his dark eyes on hers, she shivered.
"Maybe this will help with your troubles," he said. He glanced at the door, then back at her, and lowered his voice. "But here's the deal. You don't tell anyone where you got this. You and I never met. I was never here. You got it?"
She nodded, suddenly shy. The shiver took over her whole body. John Deere was definitely not a lawman. The bills lay there on the counter between them. She didn't know what to do. It was a lot of money.
He smiled like he understood everything about her. "I hope you get out of here," he said. "A sharp girl like you deserves better than this."
"I don't need your charity." They were her mom's words and they came out on their own. "I'm just tired, is all. Overdue for a day off."
He tapped the counter with his knuckles like knocking on a door. "It ain't charity, honey. It's a gift, pure and simple. No strings attached. You got something special in you, I can see it. Be a shame to have it go to waste." He gave her one last smile, warm but also somehow sad, then turned to go.
She watched him walk away, broad shoulders in the farm coat, blue jeans that fit his slim hips just right, heels of his cowboy boots on the hard floor like the ticking of a clock.
Just because she didn't want men staring at her tits didn't mean she didn't have some thoughts along those lines herself. She was a grown woman. She'd hooked up with an army-bound farmboy from her school a couple of months ago, after he'd kept showing up all sweet and flirty to keep her company in the middle of the night. She'd grabbed a pack of ancient condoms off the rack and climbed in the back of his car to get her virginity out of the way, see what the fuss was all about. They'd done the deed a few times, but in the end she hadn't been impressed by the experience, or how the boy had thought those few sweaty minutes gave him some kind of claim on her, like she was a prize hog at the county fair.
That wasn't how John Deere had looked at her. When the door closed behind him, the bell on the jamb rang once, a clear, pure chime that hung in the air like the first snowflakes of winter.
Coldwater, Montana, the loneliest place in the world.
Maybe it had been more of a town, once upon a time, before Helene was born. Now Coldwater was just a name on a sign at the edge of the plains where two county roads came together, seventy miles from the nearest stoplight. The few surviving buildings leaned into the wind, siding flapping, roof shingles half gone, a little more torn away with every storm. The only remainders were Bogaloosa's Gas and Grocery in the corner of a hayfield and the little tin travel trailer she rented from him that sat up on blocks behind the store. Bogaloosa's half-assed farm was a twenty-minute walk up the tractor path, with his swaybacked barn filled with skinny cows she milked at both ends of her twelve-hour shift, seven days a week.
After her mom died, the town population was down to two, just her and goddamn Bogaloosa.
Helene was a month past her eighteenth birthday and two months into her senior year when her mom fell asleep at the wheel and missed a curve on Highway 2. Deputy Bogaloosa knocked on the trailer door and broke the news, then took her to Glasgow to identify her mom's body.
Driving back, he said he felt real bad about her mom, and that Helene was welcome to keep living in the trailer. He apologized for bringing it up, but said Helene had to consider how she was going to have to earn a living, now that she was legally an adult. If she wanted, she could just step into the jobs her mom had done. He'd take care of her the way he'd taken care of her mom. As long as she got to work on time, she'd be free to do whatever she wanted. She'd never liked school anyway, right?
Just sitting beside him in the sheriff's pickup that first time, she'd felt acutely uncomfortable. It should have been a warning.
After dropping out of school, it didn't take Helene long to figure out that she wasn't free, not at all. Her mom's accident had totaled the car, and also ruined the phone they had shared. There was no insurance money. Bogaloosa barely paid her for all the work she did. He took the rent out of her check from the Gas and Grocery, gave her a small allowance for food, and held on to the rest of it for safekeeping, he said. For her own good, like a savings account. Besides, what was she going to buy, out there in the middle of nowhere?
When she told him she needed a damn phone, he just laughed.
She kept track of her hours and knew exactly how much he owed her, to the damn penny. Not that it made any difference. Every time she asked for more money, he made her tell her why she needed it, what she planned to buy, practically made her beg for her own dollars. He knew what was best for her, he said. She was lucky she had him in her life. He liked to remind her how much she needed him.
She had a driver's license, but no car. It wasn't a problem while her mom was still alive, but Bogaloosa must have said something to somebody, and now people she'd known for years would no longer give her a lift to town. Gas and Grocery regulars all just shook their heads and apologized, knowing Deputy Bogaloosa was petty and vengeful on the best of days.
Which meant she couldn't get to the library or laundromat or drugstore or a real grocery store without sitting beside Bogaloosa in his county pickup, pushing his sweaty hand off her leg every five minutes. "We might as well get along," he'd say with a smile. "Way I see it, we're stuck with each other."
Once she realized how trapped she was, she tried everything she could to get away. She talked to the food bank preacher, hoping for a cot in the women's shelter, but he'd just said something about how the devil couldn't take your soul unless you invited him in yourself. She'd gone to see the sheriff one day, but he'd just put his long, wrinkled arm around her, knuckles touching the side of her breast, and said that she was welcome to move in with him any time, he had an excellent wine cellar.
She'd have taken up with that farmboy she'd slept with, but she hadn't heard from him since he left for basic training. Bogaloosa had scared off everyone else.
Last month, in the barn, he finally stopped hinting and came out and said it. Starched brown official shirt tucked into tight jeans, gun on his hip, dip in his lip, he'd backed her up against the stall gate and stared down at her. "I like how you pull them teats, girl. I bet you got real strong hands." His teeth were stained the same color as his shirt and she could smell the wintergreen Skoal on his breath.
She tried to ignore him and push past, but he grabbed onto her upper arm, letting her feel how strong he was. He had a weight bench in the barn so he could pump iron, grunting, while she milked his cows. “You know how much rent I could get for that nice trailer you’re living in? How many grown men could use those two jobs I gave you? You gonna have to start showing some appreciation, young lady.”
She pulled at her arm, but his fingers just dug in deeper. He gave her the look a cat gives a mouse. “Nineteen’s a good age to get married. Why don’t we just go ahead and tie the knot? Change your life for the better.” She pulled harder and he finally let her go. As she ducked away, he called after her, “What day’s your birthday again? Aw, heck, I can just look that up in the department computer.”
Her last trip into town, he’d asked her what she wore to bed and told her he’d buy her a nice clean white nightie for her nineteenth birthday. “One more week ‘til I give you the best present of your life.” He’d waggled his eyebrows at her like it was some kind of game they were playing together.
The worst part was knowing it was coming. She tried to block it out, but her mind wouldn’t quit. Every time she closed her eyes, she got flashes of it. Bogaloosa’s hands on her naked flesh, the smell of wintergreen dip and fermented armpit, her legs pushed wide and something rough forced inside.
Beneath the fear and sadness and despair was something else, something that burned. She felt it in the tightness of her stomach and the hard pinch between her shoulder blades. Anger at how hard she worked and got nothing back, anger at her mother for dying and leaving her alone and unprotected, anger at Bogaloosa for the way he’d backed her into this corner with no way out.
Above all, anger at herself for putting up with it. As if she had a choice.
She could hear the smile in her mom’s voice as she told her it wasn’t her fault. Life hands out a lot of lemons, baby girl. Sometimes all you can do is make some lemonade.
But it was hard to imagine making lemonade from this.
Sometimes, Helene was sure she’d fight him. Pick up her mom’s big cast-iron frying pan and bash in the deputy’s head. Or take her daddy’s old revolver, point it at his face, and pull the trigger until he was a pulpy red mess. Her life was a prison already, what difference did it make if she went to jail?
Other times, she saw herself closing her eyes and giving in. Just this once, she’d tell herself. Then just once more. Then she’d be doing it over and over, for the rest of her life. The worst was when she saw herself nine months pregnant in that white nightie, now stained and worn, standing at the stove stirring oatmeal while a half-dozen crying Bogaloosa babies clutched her legs like alien parasites.
She turned nineteen in four days.