Chapter One

 

I’D FOUND the perfect spot northwest of Divide about six months ago. Hadn’t laid eyes on the place yet, not physically, which required a certain level of trust, I suppose, but I didn’t look at my actions as reckless. Not even close. If I couldn’t trust my agent, who could I trust? Nearly twenty acres with national forest on two sides, she’d told me, and set off the road a good twelve hundred feet; enough for me to have the privacy I wanted.

That’s how I liked living.

Private.

Well, I planned to learn to like it. Not that I’d lived much of my adult life that way—hidden away from the rest of the planet like some holed up codger—unless I count the year before last when for eight months I did next to nothing, including work or venturing out of the house without an emergency. I didn’t write one goddamned word, either. But with nothing up here to distract me except maybe the local wildlife, I’d be back in the saddle in no time….

At least, that was the plan.

How long I’d make it secluded in the Rockies after having conditioned myself to the breakneck speed of city life for the last two decades, I wasn’t sure. Things change, most times when we least expect them, and I was no longer naïve enough to believe otherwise. Problem was, I was no longer naïve enough to accept changes without question, either.

City living did that to a person, made one hard, apathetic, skeptical…. Shit. Chicago hadn’t made me that way. I knew that, in the last year and a half, with my excuses why I couldn’t finish my manuscript, or why I rejected another speaking invitation to whichever conference, God only knew where. All opportunities to schmooze effectively skirted ensured I never got close enough to let someone in… or even… no. My attention drifted to the perfect curve in the flight attendant’s slacks as he bent nearer the young woman seated two rows ahead of me. Thanks to a certain someone, I’d damned near convinced myself men weren’t worth it. Damned near, I say, because certain parts of me refused to fall in line.

Through the tiny oval window, I took in the scattering of lights popping through the cloud-blanketed darkness as we neared Colorado Springs. No mountain or wooded terrain had ever challenged me… this solitude might. I’d made up my mind, though. I needed this change more than I needed my next forty years—if I lasted that long.

Two hours later than scheduled, I landed at Colorado Springs Municipal. No problem. My literary agent had assured me she’d taken care of the move—satellite Internet, no TV, utilities, and a phone—all in her name. With no worries—not at three in the morning anyway—my pack over my shoulder, I stepped off the plane and followed the signs, taking a left for parking.

A security guard must’ve noticed my lost look. “Can I help ya, sir?”

“Need to get my pickup truck.”

“If they have your keys, they should have your vehicle at the curb,” he said.

“My flight’s late.”

He nodded. “Well, you might want to check with the valet.” He pointed in the direction I had originally been headed.

A young lady behind the valet counter was paying more attention to her coworker than to me. “Whadaya need tonight, sir?” she asked, attempting professionalism, though it was obvious from her jerky movements and looks at her coworker she fended off a set of wandering hands obscured behind the counter.

With a pointed look at her coworker, I dug out my billfold, rifled through, found the parking ticket Carol had mailed me, and handed it to the clerk. “Need to get my pickup truck. Thanks.”

After scanning my ticket, she disappeared somewhere in the back.

One look from me, and her coworker and I came to an understanding. He stood and hustled away. Returning, the clerk smiled, passed me my truck keys, and slid a clipboard my way, needing my signature.

Shit.

Three seconds passed before I picked up the pen and scribbled Carol Lamb in the space next to my literary agent’s printed name. Not that I didn’t give a thought to being dishonest, I did—probably too much. I’d been told more than once I was honest to a fault. But I’d made it this far; my name on any document this close to my new home would be stupid. Disastrous. Whether I liked it or not, sometimes I had to make decisions that left me hollow inside. As if feeling any more empty were possible, I chuckled to myself, thankful the clerk was preoccupied.

Carol would’ve told me, “Weigh the costs, John.”

Yeah. And everything came with a price; something I’d learned the hard way, too.

She handed me my keys and the verified ticket. “You’re in M row. There’s a shuttle runs every ten minutes if you want to wait inside those doors.”

Before I reached the exit, I’d decided I’d walk the few blocks. A little fresh air never hurt.

As I stepped outside, I inhaled deeply, enjoying the rush the night air brought, the smell of the mountains and the imminent cold; I fought back a shiver. Maybe Carol was right, and this was the best thing I’d ever done for me. I set off, trying to convince myself I’d made the right decision.

Found my truck. How hard was it to spot a teal-blue, custom, ’52 Chevy pickup? I took an initial pass on the passenger side, inspected the back, and, with another shiver, slipped my key into the driver side door. Whoever Carol had hired to drop it off here had done a good job; no dents… but I’d check for scratches in the morning.

The climb up Highway 24 made me realize how much I’d missed the mountains. With nothing but sheer rock and scattered pines lining the road, I rolled down my window; the idea lasted all of ten seconds. I’d forgotten how quickly the air cooled with the rise in elevation, even in late August, when the rest of the country rode out the heat wave of the century. A three-thousand-foot-plus rise in less than twenty miles tested my truck’s mettle too. I downshifted again. “Come on, baby. Another few minutes and we’ll be home.”

The only stoplight in Divide designated where Highways 24 and 67, and a couple of lesser roads, went separate ways. I took a sharp right north, then just after a cemetery, veered left onto County Road 51—a well-maintained gravel road—and slowed until the rapid-fire pings on my undercarriage resounded a little louder, but with less frequency, than the end cycle on a bag of microwave popcorn.

Fifteen minutes and countless stands of aspen and evergreens later, I hit dirt. Seriously. The gravel turned into a two-lane, dirt road. I was beginning to see a pattern here and imagined what the drive to my new home might be—two muddy ruts…? A well-worn footpath? With no streetlights, not even a telephone pole in sight, I continued onward, a constant eye between the odometer and the right hand side of the road, watching for my driveway. “Just nine-tenths of a mile, baby.”

When Carol had informed me there were no signs of life up here, I don’t think I’d pictured someplace quite this desolate. I mean, I relished the idea of living alone… but being lonely was an entirely different argument.

“Shit.” I slammed on the brakes, slid to a stop.

A path barely wide enough to take my pickup down called to me on my right. I checked the odometer again—maybe Carol had been off a bit. Wouldn’t have surprised me; a couple tenths of a mile was nothing, not really.

Just as I turned the nose of my truck into that drive, I caught sight of a flashlight illuminating the woods a good thirty yards to my left. Whoever carried it waved his arms as if trying to get my attention. I backed up and was straightening the wheel when Carol, dressed in winter boots and a heavy housecoat, came into focus in my headlight beams.

She crossed her arms in front of her face as she made her way closer. I shifted into first and inched along the main road.

“In here,” she hollered, pointing with both arms.

I turned into the next path on my right, not much wider than the last one, stopped, and rolled down my window. “Damn. It’s cold out there, Carol. Get in before you freeze to death.”

Without a word and holding her housecoat together, she high-stepped through God knows what to get to the other side of my truck. I popped open the door, and she hurried up onto the seat. “Thanks. I wasn’t sure where the hell you thought you were going.”

I chuckled, turning to her as we idled up the drive. “Saw that turnoff back there, thought maybe the directions were off—”

“My directions are never off.”

With pink curlers holding her hair high and tight and away from her face, the scowl etched across her forehead was visible in the ricocheted glow of her flashlight. I would’ve laughed had she not sounded so upset… or looked so Dr. Who-ishly eerie.

“I didn’t mean—”

“You know I can’t stand when you question my judgment, John.”

I knew that. Shouldn’t have said anything. If she pressed the issue, I’d blame it on the hour. Four in the morning wasn’t prime conversation time for… well, unless you were a couple…. No. I wasn’t going there. Hadn’t gone there since 1986 and Debbie Hinz, year before graduation, and I had no intention or inclination to go there ever again.

“You haven’t steered me wrong yet, Carol. I’m tired is all.”

“I know I haven’t,” she said, jerking the front of her housecoat closed.

A rather illuminated, two-story house came into view as we made a sharp curve to the left. All I could do was whistle. “I’ll never be able to pay you back for taking care of all this.”

“Nothing to repay, John.” Carol drew my attention as I parked my pickup truck. “But don’t finish that manuscript for me by December, and you’ll wish to God you never knew me.”

 

 

WARMTH filled with all-mountain goodness rushed from the entryway as Carol pushed open the door. I smiled, taking it in as I stepped inside. Something as familiar as the smell of wood smoke seemed goofy to revel in, but I hadn’t had a genuine fireplace since…. Damn. Had it really been over twenty years since I’d been home? Though my official author bio stated I was from Chicago, I’d grown up in Custer, South Dakota, smack in the heart of the Black Hills.

Seemed not that long ago I was twenty, waltzing in Mom and Dad’s front door during winter break, bragging about how I was going to be someone special one day. My nostalgia tapered away as quickly as it had arrived, though, as I wondered where the time had gone. I shut the door, punched the code into the keypad on the wall, arming the security system. Across the way and over a menagerie of poorly stacked boxes, I noticed the intensity of flames in my fireplace—a fireplace I’d seen prior to tonight only in e-mailed pictures.

She really shouldn’t have. Chopping and hauling the wood for that fire must’ve been no small feat for a woman of fifty-two. “Nice fire, but you didn’t have to go to so much—”

“You don’t really think I’m that devoted, do you?” Carol crossed the room as she spoke and disappeared through a doorway that looked, from where I stood, like the kitchen. “I see you got that code down pat already.”

Damn right I had. I’d put that code to memory as soon as she’d spat those five numbers over the phone. From the entry, I stepped onto the carpeted floor but retreated back to the tile faster than a scolded dog. Last thing I wanted was one of Carol’s infamous “looks” tonight. I toed off my boots.

Sock-footed, I entered my home, traipsed across my carpet, stretching as I glanced around at the bare walls. At least they were my bare walls—if everything worked out in the end—that’s what mattered, I supposed.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

I followed Carol’s voice and ended up in the kitchen. “Sure. Who helped you with the fire, then?” I took the mug handed me and rested against the counter, met and held her gaze.

If this were a scene unfolding in one of my books, I’d say, her eyes never leaving mine, the woman appeared almost hesitant to speak, as she sipped her steaming cup of coffee. I noted her reluctance to answer and decided to reiterate my point. “Going by your show of attitude back there, I assume you had help with the fire.”

“I’m tired, John.” She set her cup on the counter, glided to the fridge, and pulled open the door. “Milk?”

“I’m good.”

Carol turned to me, a quart of milk in her hand and a smile on her face. Too bad I knew the real her—obviously too well—but I also knew no matter how I pressed, she wouldn’t divulge information freely. Especially info she didn’t feel would benefit me. I must’ve shaken my head at the thought, for she asked, “What?”

“We’re both tired,” I told her.

Now was not the time to argue, not this early in the morning and not with both of us having little to no sleep. Hell, I’d barely got here, no telling how busy she’d been lately—dealing with my affairs, of all things. I had plenty of time to settle in, get to know the place, the town—the people, not so much. According to Carol’s figures, I had the rest of my God-given days. It’d take me that long to pay her off.

I swirled my mug this way and that, watching the black mini-typhoon unfold in my hands. Judging from the tighter than normal knot in the center of my chest, I definitely could use sleep.

“You’ll be all right, John.”

I studied Carol’s face, the motherly concern I so often found there….

One of her perfectly plucked brows arched high as she sipped her coffee. “John,” she said, lowering her cup. “After all these years….” She poured her cup’s remains down the sink and rinsed it away before turning to face me once again. “You still don’t trust me.”

What could I say? Sure as hell wasn’t a question she posed in that familiar, more-often-than-not brash tone. I looked at the microwave above the range—the one necessity I could not do without when I got hungry—then back to Carol. Of the few people I could trust in my life, after ten years, Carol’s loyalty shouldn’t even be a question—the question, really.

“You’re wrong,” I said, and at once, thought about my choice of words as I held her hardened stare with a look I prayed she understood. By God, if she expected me to trust, then I expected her not to question my every action and reaction.

Her eyes grew wide for a fraction of a second before she slid her expressionless mask back into place. Had that not been a hint of uncertainty I noticed? Just as I started to question my own perception, she intervened.

“Something I didn’t expect, not here in Divide, anyway…. You happen to have a very neighborly neighbor—”

Jaw suddenly tight but my grip tighter, I slammed my mug on the counter and then realized I’d reacted without thinking. Get out, away… alone—anywhere but here. I didn’t care.

“I ran all the checks. Don’t—John, calm down. You know what your doctor said about your anger getting—”

My other hand followed my cup to the counter as my mind raced through the first twenty numbers on its way to one hundred. “This is as calm as it gets, considering what you just told me.”

“He’s helped me out a great deal these past few months. When he noticed I was here all alone, he—”

He? Whoever this ‘he’ is didn’t just help you with that fire tonight, did he?” She opened her mouth to explain, maybe offer a name, but I held up my hand. “Don’t tell me. It’s better if I don’t know.”

I knew more than I wanted to already; some stranger knew my house better than I did. For chrissake, what in the hell was she thinking? I’d moved here for the single purpose of disappearing from the radar. Of course, I wasn’t ignorant enough to believe I could stay hidden away forever, but damn it all to hell, I’d been here what—a whole hour and a half?

“Where’s my room?” I asked, with my back still to Carol as I paused on my way out of the kitchen.

“Left at the top of the stairs, last room on the right.”

 

 

I REACHED my room and lowered my bag, wondering why my one carryon weighed heavier than I remembered. Not until I unpacked did I discover the culprit in the very bottom, tucked neatly beneath a pair of holey socks. I sat—no, I plopped down on the edge of my bed with the small, ornate-framed picture in hand. Why my old baggage had decided to hitch a ride on the road to my new life—the new me—I didn’t know.

I didn’t like it.

“Why?” I asked, as I traced the shadowed jaw of the man leaning on me in the picture. Everyone always commented on the contrast between us. I used to tease him about his round glasses and blond hair making him look like one of those Old West bankers in my books. He used to jibe back about my Sioux grandmother.

We’d had a good life. I loved him; I did. For twelve years, he was my reason for…. For a second, I stopped to recompose. Admittedly, I’d lived for Mark. And he’d assured me we’d be together forever….

Boy, was that ever a crock of shit. I chucked the picture toward the pillows as I got to my feet. “Never again. Never.” With one final glance behind me, I headed for the shower.

It’d been six months since I’d last seen him—in court, on the stand, making an ass of himself with one convoluted story after another—and over two years since he’d walked out, taking everything of mine with him. On cue, my chest tightened, as it did every time memories of Mark surfaced. I turned up the heat and relished the pain pelting my back as I ran through the breathing exercises my doctor had suggested.

Personally, I thought he was full of shit, but I kept following his advice. Maybe it was just taking me longer than other men to shake this—whatever this was. One month, it was anger, four months later, depression… and three months later, back to anger. I wished my doctor would prescribe me a pill and be done with it.

How much longer would I let my existence be dictated by a man I wished—no—I prayed to God—to eradicate all memory of?

It’d take me forever to recoup what Mark had skimmed from my accounts… handling the taxes, my ass. After the IRS got through, and me maxing out my credit cards to stay afloat, I turned to Carol. Not willingly, mind you. Took quite a bit of prodding on her part, but she convinced me of how much she already had invested, and I broke down, told her everything….

At least the bastard had left me the kitchen sink; for that, I should be grateful. No telling what I’d have done had I not been able to make my morning coffee.

I made a note to tell my doctor about my positive thinking as I cranked off the shower and threw back the curtain.

Towel at my hips, I emerged from the bathroom before realizing I’d gone through the routine of shaving and brushing my teeth. That seemed to be happening more often—switching into autopilot mode, somehow. Guess my body was determined to function, regardless of where my mind drifted.

And my mind drifted a lot lately. Not a good habit, according to Carol. Then again, she had her agenda. Nothing made it more difficult to write than losing focus. I turned back the bed, turned out the light, and crawled between the sheets.

In the dark, I listened to my breathing, heard myself sigh. My doctor and Carol were both wrong. I rolled over and turned the picture face-out, propping the only piece of Mark I had left against the pillow next to mine. I wasn’t needy or desperate, and I sure as hell wasn’t obsessed. In truth, I didn’t want to forget the bastard’s face. On the off chance I should come across him in the future—the long-term future, since he wouldn’t be out of prison for embezzlement anytime in the next seven years—I wanted to make sure I recognized him, for if we should meet again, I was prepared to take back the one thing still rightfully mine.

Along with my life, my means, and my dignity, the prick had stolen my heart; as a result, I promised never to let myself be vulnerable again….

And for that, I hated him.

 

 

FOUR hours of sleep was plenty. Wasn’t the day’s fault my flight had been delayed or that I’d chosen to have coffee with Carol in the middle of the night; not to mention, I’d screwed up my entire schedule by showering before I went to bed. Why had I done it? I didn’t have an answer. Hell, for all I knew, my body had decided it was time to get clean and instructed my feet to lead me into the shower at four thirty a.m.

Right now, I was too tired to put further thought than I already had into last night. I threw off the covers and scrambled for my jeans and a clean shirt. A little cold water in the face, socks for my feet, boots—I stood there for a minute before remembering I’d left my boots by the front door…. I’d left my hat slung over one corner of the back of a kitchen chair too.

Tucking my shirt inside my jeans, I followed an unbelievable aroma down the stairs and into the kitchen. In the center of the table was a pan of cinnamon rolls.

Fuck! I pulled my hand away from the hot pan—make that fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls. After opening three wrong drawers, I found where Carol had unpacked my silverware and grabbed a butter knife to dig one out and onto a napkin before licking my fingers clean and claiming my hat.

“Oh, morning, John.” Carol set a pot of coffee on the table alongside the rolls. “Have a seat.”

“No time.” Damn. Never knew Carol to bake, but these rolls were delicious. I pointed to the coffee. “Got something with a lid?”

“I suppose. Where are you off to so early?”

“It’s not… slept in, actually.” My eyes watered as I swallowed the steamy, cinnamony center nearly whole. I had somewhere to be by ten, and I’d be damned if I missed this appointment. Hadn’t planned on talking about it. “Got a research opportunity to check into.”

Carol smiled as she returned and handed me a lidded travel mug. “Well, I’ve got to catch an early afternoon flight, so if I don’t see you before I go—”

“You’re leaving already?” My words registered as coffee sloshed over the side of my mug. I topped it off, screwed on the lid. Of course she was leaving. My God, she’d been flying out here, back and forth from Chicago, for months—all on account of me. She wanted to get back home and back to work, more important work than babysitting a forty-one-year-old man and his affairs. My smile was forced, at best, and I hurried to dig another roll out of the pan to take with me.

“John.”

Carol no sooner rounded the end of the table than she wrapped her arms around my middle and squeezed. I fumbled the knife back to the pan and returned her hug the best I could with sticky fingers.

“You’ll be okay, you know,” she said.

Of course I would, though I’d always hoped for something better than just “okay” at this age. “Sorry I-I should’ve got up earlier to….”

She backed away with a smile. “You like those cinnamon rolls, do you?”

With a second roll shoved halfway inside my mouth, I nodded.

“Go ahead, take some with,” she said.

After digging out two more, I washed my hands and grabbed a couple extra napkins for the road. “Thanks. And I mean that for everything, Carol. Not sure I could’ve made it without you, and—well, you know, you’re always there, pulling my ass out of the fire….” At her hesitation, I paused, snagged my travel mug off the table. “You’ll call, let me know you made it home okay?”

Her smile broadened. “You know I will, and you call me if you need anything—and I mean anything.”

I headed for the door before our goodbye got any more awkward than it already had.

“December, John!” she hollered from the kitchen.

I finished slipping into my boots. “You’ll have it before December,” I hollered back. But I lied—every word bullshit—and I knew it, as I balanced my napkin-wrapped rolls atop my mug, stepped outside, and pulled the door shut behind me.

How I’d pull this off, I hadn’t a clue. The woman had enough faith in my writing and in me to finance a new life for my sorry ass. Something had to give and give soon. Betraying Carol’s trust would be the second worst mistake I ever made in my life.

For a brief moment, I panicked when I noticed my pickup unlocked. It’d been years since I’d left a vehicle unlocked, even in my own driveway. Not having to worry about that was something I’d have to get used to all over again.

Once more, balancing the remainder of my breakfast, I opened my door, set my rolls on the dash and my coffee on the seat. Daylight meant enough light to check my pickup, as I would’ve liked to have done last night.

No dings, no scratches… could use a good bath, though. The crisp air penetrated my sleeves. I rubbed my arms. Maybe I should’ve thrown on a jacket. When I got back, I’d pull on a sweater and walk around the place. From where I stood, the house looked huge, with little yard to maintain out front here… lots of pine needles. Across the small patch of browning grass, a chipmunk raced over the ground, scattering needles as he burrowed under a pile of brush. I smiled. This place could grow on me.