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Jonas Porter yawned as he marched up the front porch steps to the Craftsman-style bungalow in the middle of nowhere. At ten in the morning he'd been on shift for more than sixteen straight hours, thanks to the Webber kid taking his neighbor's car for a joyride that ended with a big splash into the Siuslaw River.
When he took the lawenforcement position, Jonas had been promised relative peace and quiet by the county sheriff and Jonas's longtime mentor, Walt Roberts. Since Jonas needed a break and crime didn't run rampant in Aberdeen, the small Oregon town where the river dumped into the Pacific Ocean, the job looked like the perfect solution. If a drunk preteen with a lack of common sense turned out to be the biggest problem, Jonas could live with that.
Agreeing to handle one small task on his way back to his place to pass out was probably not his brightest move. He needed sleep, but this should be easy. In and out, and then he could slip into bed for a few hours.
He knocked on the dark red door. The rock beat thumping inside and shaking the walls cut off. He double-checked the house number to make sure he was at the right place. He expected an older lady, a grandmother type. He guessed this one liked her music loud, which blew his older-woman stereotype apart.
In the resulting silence he waited for someone to open up. When no one did, he raised his hand to try again and nearly punched the woman who threw the door open.
"Sorry," he mumbled as he stared into big brown eyes filled with a wariness that appeared older than the rest of her.
"Yes?" Her smile faded when her gaze traveled down his chest.
A guy could get a complex. "Ma'am, is this your house?"
The high cheekbones and slim figure didn't make any sense. Young and pretty with shoulder-length brown hair, and not at all the lonely older woman he'd been told to check on. This one couldn't be more than in her mid to late twenties. She wore a slim, long-sleeved red T-shirt and, if his guess was right, no bra.
He pretended not to notice the last part. "I'm Lieutenant Jonas Porter, the deputy police chief."
"I got that much from the uniform and name tag."
"Uh, right. Sure." She had him stuttering like the Webber kid.
"Why are you here?" She wiped her hands on her olive cargo pants but didn't shift one inch to let him in.
Young or old, she hardly struck him as a woman who needed police assistance to make sure she took her medicine on time. This one could handle her business without any help from him. The flat line of her mouth and clenched fists suggested she wanted to kick him right off the porch.
"We had a call," he explained. "I'm here for a wellness check."
Something flashed in her dark eyes. "What are you talking about?"
"Your husband has been trying to reach you and when he couldn't"
Her grip tightened on the door. "My husband?"
"Yes, ma'am. My understanding is that he's away from home on business." When she continued to stare at him with that you've-lost-your-mind expression, Jonas tried again. "He called a friend who called the police in Maryland who contacted my office. I'm here as a courtesy."
Seemed she had a repetition problem. "Yes, ma'am. Your husband was worried you'd forgotten to take your medications."
"You think I need drugs?"
Jonas refused to be thrown off stride. "Your husband said something about a bad fall recently."
"Is this a joke?"
That was what Jonas was starting to wonder. "No, ma'am."
"You obviously have the wrong person." She started to close the door. Right in his face.
He caught the edge with one hand as the other went to the top of his gun. "Hold up."
The move was pure instinct. He'd once waited a second too long and vowed never to make that mistake again.
She didn't miss the move. Her gaze zipped to his weapon. "Excuse me?"
"Let's calm down for a second and walk through this."
"Do I look nervous to you?"
"Actually, yes." Something was wrong here. Very wrong. The request to his office had been clear. The husband had a friend who pulled some strings. This type of thing didn't happen all the time, but it did happen.
This had to be the place. Right number. Right street. The description fit right down to the colors of the flowers in the pot next to the door.
Jonas took a deep breath and doubled back to try a new angle. "You are Margaret Taynor, correct?"
Her face paled. She looked as if all the blood drained from her upper body.
Yeah, definitely something wrong here. "Ma'am?" She shook her head as her throat moved in a hard swallow. "No."
"That wasn't a very convincing answer."
"It's not my name."
If he hadn't been paying attention he might have missed them, but she showed some of the classic signs of deceptionno eye contact, shallow breathing and the skin color that came right before someone threw up on his shoes. She dodged questions and gave half answers.
"If there's a problem between you and your husband, I might be able to help."
"No." She blew out a few breaths.
Jonas didn't know what to believe, but the pieces sure didn't fit. The wellness-check request didn't match the person in front of him. This woman did not recently fall down and break her hip. Her biggest problem, as far as he could see, was with telling the truth.
He wanted to know what was really going on. "If you're more comfortable talking to a female officer, I can"
She waved a hand in front of her face. "I meant that, no, I am not Margaret Taynor."
"Yeah, you said that."
"Then are we done here?"
As if he could walk away now and still deserve to wear the badge. "Ma'am, enough with the verbal games. Who are you exactly?"
She stared past him, out to the tree-lined road and the mountains surrounding her place. "Does that matter?"
He shifted so his back wasn't quite as exposed. At this angle, he could swing around and aim for the yard or the house if he had to. "Actually, I think it does."
She nibbled on her lip. "Courtney Allen."
"And you live here?"
She edged the door tighter against her side and one step closer to shutting him out. "I don't have a husband or a clue what you're talking about."
Jonas slipped his shoe into the space between the door and the frame, though he doubted she'd think twice of breaking a few bones if she had to.
"Do you know Margaret Taynor?" he asked.
Courtney glanced at his shoe then let her gaze wander up his body nice and slow, as if weighing her chances of running. He'd seen it before. This was the second before panic gave way to stupid.
"We're done here," she said.
He reassessed. Not domestic violence. Maybe some criminal activity in her past. Something she hadn't settled. "You want me to come back with a warrant?"
"If you think you have probable cause, go ahead and try."
The woman knew her legal lingo. He took that as a sign she either watched a lot of television or had some personal experience in this area. "Ma'am, I think you should come with me."
Her shoulders straightened. It was as if she grew two inches just by standing there. "And I think you should move your foot before you lose it."
Wanting to see what she would do, he slid it back. "Fair enough."
"Goodbye, Officer." She slammed the door before he could say anything else.
So much for going off duty.
Courtney glanced through the peephole and saw the officer still standing on her porch. The guy had black hair, broad shoulders and an attitude that spelled trouble.
But she had bigger problems than a six-foot-something guy with a gun. Margaret Taynor? Oh, she knew Margaret. Courtney also knew if someone was asking, he'd finally found her.
With practiced quiet steps, she jogged to the back door and peeked out. The officer hadn't slipped around to this side of the house. That meant she had time, probably seconds only, but she'd memorized the plan long ago.
She had to run.
She'd picked a house on this street on purpose. The neighborhood sat on the edge of Siuslaw National Forest. The lush woods behind the quiet property provided the perfect protection and the easiest escape.
She'd never been one for luck, but today she had it. Low wind and the rain from the night before had cleared. A crisp, sunny spring day beamed in through her kitchen window.
She eased the door open, scanning the open backyard for unwanted visitors. Branches from two trees bent over, forming a makeshift arch and beckoning her to the far end of her property. A tall fence outlined the yard. Nothing stood between her and safety. From here it was a dead run to the far gate.
If she kept quiet, Officer Tall, Dark and Dangerous wouldn't hear her. That was the hope. He could waste time fiddling with his radio and she could run.
She held the door with two fingers to keep it from banging shut behind her. Two steps down and she hit the grass. Her cheap sneakers slid in the oozing mud, but she stayed on her feet. Air pounded in her lungs and a soft breeze whipped through her hair as she ran.
She lunged for the gate and flipped the cover open on the small security box. A car key fell into her hand as her fingers typed in the code. After a click the outside alarm shut off.
With one last glance over her shoulder, she said a silent goodbye to the only place that had felt like home in years. The pain of leaving ripped through her with the force of a blade. Her stomach dropped and her heart ached. She'd finally started to build memories, enjoy her work. She'd even made a real friend. She'd felt free to live again.
But her brain knew those days were over. Running was the right decision. If she stayed, she'd die like the rest of them.
Swallowing back the tears she refused to let fall, she opened the gate
and ran straight into the broad chest of Lieutenant Trouble.
Jonas grabbed her upper arms and held her a few inches away from him. "Hello."
Her voice deserted her. "Uh-huh."
Her breath rushed out of her lungs and refused to come back. "No."
He smiled. "Good answer."