“Tell me I’ll be safe here, Jesse. I just need to know that for a little while I can let go of the fear.”
As Jesse saw the haunting of her eyes, felt both the tragedy and the fear that emanated from her, he wished he could reassure her, promise her sanctuary, but Jesse had never been one to make false promises.
He knew nothing about her situation, knew nothing about what danger might find her here. He wouldn’t lie, couldn’t give her guarantees that didn’t exist.
Something—an expression of need in her eyes—touched him, and he didn’t like it. She was a job. Nothing more, nothing less. In two weeks she’d be gone, back to where she belonged.
As you have no doubt noticed, this year marks Silhouette Books’ 20th anniversary, and for the next three months the spotlight shines on Intimate Moments, so we’ve packed our schedule with irresistible temptations.
First off, I’m proud to announce that this month marks the beginning of A YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY, a twelve-book continuity series written by eleven of your favorite authors. Sharon Sala, a bestselling, award-winning, absolutely incredible writer, launches things with Mission: Irresistible, and next year she will also write the final book in the continuity. Picture a top secret agency, headed by a man no one sees. Now picture a traitor infiltrating security, chased by a dozen (or more!) of the agency’s best operatives. The trail crisscrosses the globe, and passion is a big part of the picture, until the final scene is played out and the final romance reaches its happy conclusion. Every book in A YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY features a self-contained romance, along with a piece of the ongoing puzzle, and enough excitement and suspense to fuel your imagination for the entire year. Don’t miss a single monthly installment!
This month also features new books from top authors such as Beverly Barton, who continues THE PROTECTORS, and Marie Ferrarella, who revisits THE BABY OF THE MONTH CLUB. And in future months look for New York Times bestselling author Linda Howard, with A Game of Chance (yes, it’s Chance Mackenzie’s story at long last), and a special in-line two-in-one collection by Maggie Shayne and Marilyn Pappano, called Who Do You Love? All that and more of A YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY, as well as new books from the authors who’ve made Intimate Moments the place to come for a mix of excitement and romance no reader can resist. Enjoy!
Leslie J. Wainger
Executive Senior Editor
Imminent Danger Carla Cassidy
is an award-winning author who has written over thirty-five books for Silhouette. In 1995, she won Best Silhouette Romance from Romantic Times Magazine for Anything for Danny. In 1998, she also won a Career Achievement Award for Best Innovative Series from Romantic Times Magazine.
Carla believes the only thing better than curling up with a good book to read is sitting down at the computer with a good story to write. She’s looking forward to writing many more books and bringing hours of pleasure to readers.
They hadn’t told him she was blind.
Jesse Wilder stared out his living room window, watching the beige sedan that had pulled up at the curb. The driver helped a woman from the car then handed her the traditional white-tipped cane for the blind.
Jesse frowned, his mind racing with how the woman’s sight limitations might complicate things. Already everything was complicated enough.
As the couple drew closer, Jesse studied them intently. He knew the man was Kent Keller, the U.S. Marshal who, along with Bob Sanford, had set up this whole thing. He didn’t yet know the woman’s name, and in any case would probably never be privy to her real name.
In Jesse’s eight years of working in law enforcement, the last four as Sheriff of Mustang, Montana, he’d never been involved in anything like this. He wouldn’t be now if Bob Sanford hadn’t asked for his help.
He narrowed his eyes, studying the woman, her cane awkwardly tapping the sidewalk in front of her.
It was difficult to discern much about her features. Oversize glasses and dark bangs obscured the top portion of her face, and the late-summer breeze blew a strand of her long dark hair across her cheek, further cloaking her features.
Protective custody for a week or two. Jesse’s responsibility was to keep this woman out of harm’s way.
He moved away from the window as the couple approached the house. A moment later a knock sounded. Drawing a deep breath, Jesse answered the door.
“Sheriff Wilder?” The tall, gray-haired man had eyes like flint and his face looked as if it had never known the softness of a smile.
“Yes, sir,” Jesse replied, fighting the automatic impulse to salute the stern man.
“I’m Marshal Keller.”
He shook Keller’s hand hard and met his icy gaze unflinchingly.
Jesse stepped aside to allow them entry into his home. “Please, come in.”
As he closed the front door, Keller helped the young woman to the sofa. She sank down on the cushion and Keller sat beside her. Jesse sat in a chair facing them, waiting patiently, knowing Keller would tell him only what he needed to know.
“Sheriff Wilder, this is…”
“Cecilia, Cecilia Webster.” Her voice was low and soft, and he knew instantly that the name was a lie. It fell uneasily from her lips, as if she were testing the sound of it.
“Nice to meet you both. I assume you had no trouble finding the place.” Jesse said.
“No problems,” Keller replied, offering no information on how long they’d been driving or how far they’d come.
“Have you ever been to Montana before, Ms. Webster?” Jesse asked.
“No. It’s never been particularly high on my list of places I wanted to go.”
“But now we’re here, and that’s that,” Keller said flatly.
“Would you like something to drink? Something to eat, perhaps?” Jesse offered.
“No, thanks,” Keller replied.
An uncomfortable silence fell among them. Keller looked at Jesse and nodded toward the door. “Why don’t you walk me out? You can get Ms. Webster’s things from the car. I need to get back on the road.”
Keller stood. “Cecilia, I’ll be in touch.”
She nodded, appearing to grow smaller as she wrapped her arms around herself and sank deeper into the sofa cushions.
Jesse followed Keller outside. The older man said nothing until they reached the car. “We thought the investigation she’s involved with would only take a couple of weeks, but it’s taking longer. For the last month we’ve had her in dozens of motel rooms. But mentally she hasn’t been handling it real well, so we decided she needed something more permanent.” He opened the trunk and withdrew a large suitcase and a smaller, overnight bag.
“Why not the Witness Protection Program?” Jesse asked.
“Because the people she will be testifying against could possibly have access to information from the Witness Protection Program. We couldn’t take the risk. We decided to go outside the system to try to find her a safe haven.”
Jesse was definitely intrigued. “But why me?” It was a question that had plagued him since the initial phone call from Sanford.
For the first time a ghost of a smile lifted the corners of Keller’s mouth. “Mustang, Montana, isn’t exactly a well-known metropolis. I don’t know of anyone who even knows Mustang exists.”
“I wouldn’t say that to the citizens that call Mustang home,” Jesse said dryly.
Keller closed the trunk, then looked at Jesse once again. “We chose you for several reasons. The town is small, your record is excellent and you have no family.”
Jesse almost smiled. Keller obviously didn’t know about small-town living where everyone considered everyone else family of sorts.
“We also know you have no close personal relationships, no wife, no girlfriend.”
The smile that almost made it to Jesse’s lips instantly dissipated as he wondered how deeply they’d delved into his private life.
“Besides,” Keller continued, “Sanford said you owed him and you wouldn’t tell us no.”
Bob Sanford had been his mentor when Jesse had gone to the police academy. Without Bob’s personal interest and patience, Jesse would not have made it through the grueling training.
“So, is there anything specific I need to know?” Jesse asked.
“Just go about your business as usual. As much as possible, try not to break from your normal routine. Tell anyone who asks that she’s your girlfriend, come to stay for a brief visit. Basically your job is that of glorified baby-sitter.” Keller walked around to the driver’s door and opened it. “We aren’t expecting any problems. There are only three of us who know her actual location. Still, you shouldn’t forget that she is at the center of an investigation that puts her life at risk.
“She’s a material witness that’s vital to the investigation. Trust nobody, and make sure she doesn’t, either.” Keller slid behind the wheel and started the engine. “I’m sure everything will be fine. She’s a long way from the bad guys here.”
Dozens of questions whirled in Jesse’s mind. “How do I get in touch with you if I need to?”
“You don’t.” Keller slammed the car door and pulled away from the curb.
Jesse watched the car until it disappeared from his sight, then he turned and eyed the neat, threebedroom ranch-style house he called home. For the next week or two he would share his home with a blind material witness whose life was in danger. How could a blind woman be a witness to anything?
Questions spun through his mind, but Jesse knew he could expect no answers. Keller had told him what he absolutely needed to know—nothing more, nothing less.
When he walked inside, Cecilia was sitting exactly where they had left her, the dark glasses still perched over her eyes.
He wondered about her blindness. How long had she been blind? Had she been blind since birth or had she enjoyed the wonder of sight only to lose it through some tragedy?
Some place deep inside him, a grievous memory stirred to the surface, but he mentally shoved it away as he had done countless times in the past.
“Sheriff Wilder?” There was a slight panic in her voice.
“Yes, it’s me,” he answered hurriedly and set down the two suitcases. “But you’d better call me Jesse. According to Keller, I’m supposed to tell everyone that you’re my girlfriend.”
“Lucky you,” she said, an underlying bitterness scoring her words.
Jesse shifted from one foot to the other, unsure what to do next. “Can I get you something to drink? Are you hungry?” He’d asked before, but she hadn’t replied.
“No, I’m fine for now.” She lay the cane next to her and entwined her fingers in her lap. “If I’m going to play the part of your girlfriend, then I guess we should come up with some background story.”
Jesse once again sat in the chair facing her. He’d never before realized how he depended on seeing a person’s eyes to assess their character. He found the dark glasses rather disconcerting.
“Since you’ve never been to Mustang before, we would have to have met someplace else.” He frowned thoughtfully. “A couple months ago I took a week’s vacation and went camping. We could tell people I met you then.”
She frowned, her nose wrinkling. “I don’t know anything about camping. Besides, who would believe I was out in the wilderness setting up a tent?”
She had a point. “Well, then maybe we could have met in a café as I was driving home,” he offered.
“And what was I doing there? Serving coffee? Short-order cook?”
Unexpected irritation surged in Jesse. “Lady, you’ve got to help me out here,” he said.
Her cheeks pinkened and she tugged off the glasses, exposing beautiful large green eyes fringed with dark, thick lashes. “I apologize. Perhaps I’m more tired than I realized. Would it be possible to show me to my room and we can discuss the details of everything a little bit later?”
Jesse instantly regretted snapping at her. Without the glasses, he could see bruiselike dark circles beneath her eyes. That, coupled with her pale complexion, gave her the appearance of sheer exhaustion. “Of course. Let me get your bags into the room, then I’ll come back for you.”
“I appreciate it.”
For the first time since buying the house, Jesse was grateful the guest bedroom was stark. A double bed, a chest of drawers and a nightstand were the only furniture. At least it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge for a blind person to maneuver.
He set the suitcases in the bottom of the empty closet, then returned to the living room. She was standing, cane in one hand, the sunglasses propped on the top of her head.
“Here we go,” he said, self-consciously taking her by the elbow. “There’s a long hallway and your room is the second on the left. The bathroom is the first door on the left.”
She held herself stiffly, as if she were unaccustomed to another’s touch. Jesse could feel the tension that rippled from her, waves of nervous anxiety almost visible in its strength.
And why shouldn’t she be tense? he asked himself. Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to be blind. She had the added burden of knowing she was in danger, and she’d just been dropped off at a stranger’s house in an unfamiliar town.
“The bed is straight ahead, the chest of drawers to the left, the closet on the right,” Jesse explained as they turned into the bedroom doorway. “There’s a nightstand on the left of the bed, and I put your suitcases in the closet.” He hesitated a moment, unsure about her needs. “Do you want me to help you unpack?”
“No, thanks. I’m sure I can manage just fine.” Her voice was cool, as if he’d irritated her with his question. She stepped away from him, so he was no longer touching her.
“Then I’ll just leave you to rest,” he said. “Do you want the door open or closed?”
Jesse shut the door, then returned to the living room. Moving to the window, he stared outside, his thoughts now focused on his new houseguest.
Cecilia was blind, beautiful and prickly as a cactus. Of course, not knowing exactly what had happened in her life, what she found herself involved in, it was difficult for him to cast stones because of her irritable mood.
Jesse rubbed his hands down the sides of his jeans, realizing his palms were damp with nervous sweat. A blind woman in his care. Was this somebody’s idea of retribution? Reparation for the unresolved trauma in his life?
Again that distant memory knocked in his brain. For an instant, he saw everything as it had been on that night so long ago. The headlights of his car shining on the black glaze of the road…the pull of the steering wheel as the car went out of control…the thick, twisted tree that loomed closer…closer until… Jesse gasped and forcefully shoved the memories away. He turned from the window.
One week. Two at the most, and then she’d be gone from his life. Surely for two weeks he could take care of her, keep her safe and not think about the past, about the man whose life he’d destroyed on a wintry slick road almost thirteen years ago.
Seven steps from the doorway to the edge of the bed. Five steps from the bed to the chest of drawers and four from the bed to the closet. Her entire world had become comprised of steps.
She sank onto the edge of the bed. “My name is Allison Welch,” she whispered to herself. “Allison Welch. Allison Welch.”
Like a mantra, she repeated it over and over again, afraid that one of these days Allison Welch would somehow cease to exist altogether.
Allison Welch had the world by the tail. She was an up-and-coming interior designer, and her shop, Comforts Of Home, was gaining more and more popularity in Chicago.
She had a fantastic apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, a full social life and a close relationship with her sister and brother-in-law.
A sob rose and she slapped a hand across her mouth to contain it. She wouldn’t think about Alicia and John and that night. If she let those horrendous visions replay, she’d lose her mind.
Unpack. Deal with the here and now. If she thought of the past, grief would overwhelm her. If she tried to anticipate the future, fear and despair would engulf her.
Four steps to the closet and she found her suitcases on the floor. She grabbed the big one and carried it back to the bed, where she clicked it open and began to unpack. There weren’t a lot of clothes inside, and everything was already on a hanger.
They all had been bought by a female officer when Allison had been released from the hospital a month ago. A dress, two pairs of jeans, a pair of dress slacks, two T-shirts, three sweatshirts and two silk blouses, all in shades of blue so she could dress herself and not worry about clashing colors.
The smaller suitcase held toiletries, underclothes and her nightgown and robe. She finished unpacking, then once again sat on the edge of the bed. At least it would be nice to be in the same place for more than three days.
The last month was a blur of motel and hotel rooms. Her knees and shins were bruised by the fact that they hadn’t been in any one room long enough for her to learn navigating the furniture. Just as she’d figured out how to walk in the room without bumping into something, they’d move to a new place.
She thought of her host. Jesse Wilder. All she knew about him was that he was sheriff of Mustang, Montana.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She also knew he had a deep voice as soothing as a velvet wrap on a wintry night. As he’d led her into the bedroom, she’d gotten the impression that he was tall, and smelled of the pleasant combination of soap and spice cologne.
She had no idea how old he was, what he looked like or if she could trust him. Although she assumed Kent Keller and Bob Sanford wouldn’t have placed her in his care if he couldn’t be trusted.
She frowned at thoughts of the two men who’d been in charge of her life for the past month. Blind, and reeling from what she’d experienced, it had taken a considerable amount of reassurance from Bob Sanford before she’d tell him anything about what she’d seen from the closet.
Once Sanford had been assured by her doctor that physically she was ready to be released, she’d been transferred to Keller’s care and had begun the motel room jumping that had eventually brought her here.
She pulled her glasses off the top of her head and placed them on the nightstand, then stretched out across the bed. The spread smelled of sunshine and fabric softener.
The moment she’d walked in, she’d noticed the entire house had the odor of lemon wax and cleanser. Sheriff Wilder had obviously cleaned for her arrival.
Tears pressed hot and heavy at her eyes as she thought of all she’d lost. Everything. She’d lost everything. She’d gladly accept the blindness for the rest of her life if in return she could give John and Alicia back their lives.
She squeezed her eyes tightly closed, knowing that was impossible. John and Alicia were gone forever. Murdered in their home. No sacrifice on Allison’s part, no bargaining with the devil or with God would bring them back. The best she could hope for was to bring down the men responsible for their deaths.
As she had done for the past four weeks, she consciously willed away her tears, refusing to give in to grief. Retribution. That had become her reason for being, the sum total of her existence. The guilty had to be punished.
This was the goal that kept her from sinking into the utter depths of despair, from giving up all pretense of living.
She would survive whatever fate threw her way…as long as in the end, the people responsible for John and Alicia’s deaths paid.
She rolled over on her side, staring blankly at the window, where she could feel the sun warming the spread, splashing her face.
She was supposed to be Cecilia Webster now, a twenty-six-year-old blind woman from Cleveland, Ohio.
It was an identity provided for her protection, but she hadn’t felt safe one moment in the past four weeks.
A couple more weeks. That’s what Keller had promised her. In a couple more weeks the investigation should be over and the killers would be behind bars. Then she could return to her life…at least the shattered pieces that were left.
She closed her eyes, hoping, praying for the sweet release that sleep could bring, hoping, praying that the nightmares that so often plagued her sleep remained at bay.
Jesse looked at his watch for the third time in twenty minutes. His houseguest had been in the bedroom for nearly three hours and he hadn’t heard a peep.
While she’d slept, he’d made dinner, deciding on hamburgers and chips. Not exactly a gourmet welcome meal, but simple and easy to eat.
He checked his watch yet again. After six. He wondered if perhaps he should wake her, but was reluctant to intrude on her sleep if that’s what she needed. He supposed she’d get up when she was hungry, and in the meantime all he could do was wait.
He walked into the kitchen, grabbed a cold soda from the refrigerator and popped the top. He took a long swallow, then moved to the window to stare outside.
He’d called the sheriff’s office earlier to let Vic Taylor, one of his deputies know he needed to take a day or two off. Even though Keller had told him to keep a normal routine, he couldn’t very well leave a blind woman to her own devices in strange surroundings.
He’d begun to perpetuate the cover story, telling Vic that a friend had stopped by for a surprise visit.
There had been no new breaks on the Casanova case, nothing else pressing that couldn’t wait a day or two. Vic had assured him that the four deputies could handle whatever arose and Jesse had hung up, knowing the people who worked for him were good, competent and fair lawmen.
He took another sip of his soda and moved away from the window with another glance at his watch. A scream ripped through the silence of the house.
For an instant, Jesse froze. The scream had come from the guest room. Adrenaline pumped through him. He slammed his drink down and grabbed his gun from the holster hanging on a hook near the back door. He flipped off the safety and advanced slowly, cautiously down the hallway.
Had somebody managed to track her here? Was somebody in the bedroom with her now? Damn Keller for not telling him more. Damn Keller for not warning him she might be in imminent danger.
He reached the closed bedroom door and paused, listening for a sound, any sound that might indicate what was happening on the other side of the hollow wood. Nothing. Not a sound. Not a single noise.
Was she already dead? Would he open the door to find her lifeless body draped across the bed? If somebody had entered through the window, she would have never seen him coming. She wouldn’t have known she wasn’t alone in the room until hands had closed around her throat, or a blade had touched the flesh of her neck.
Jesse grabbed the doorknob and turned it slowly, soundlessly. Although emotion demanded he hurry—fling open the door and burst inside—training and instinct warned him to go slow, to face the unknown with caution. He eased the door open and stepped inside, the gun leveled in front of him.
The room appeared empty. The bedspread was wrinkled and a depression marked the center of one of the pillows. The window was closed, the curtains neatly in place. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, except Cecilia Webster was no place in sight.
A renewed burst of adrenaline flooded him as he heard a thump come from the closet. The closet door was half-open, but the waning light of dusk threw deep shadows that obscured the interior of the small space.
Jesse advanced, his gun once again leading the way. With one hand, he eased the closet door fully open. She was there.
He lowered his gun and muttered a soft curse beneath his breath. As he gazed at her, curled up in the corner, her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her cheeks stained with tears, he wondered what in the hell she’d been through, and what in the hell he’d gotten himself into!
She could see through the wooden slats of the closet door, saw the two men burst into the house with their guns drawn.
“Hey. Hey…!” John exclaimed. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
Allison watched in horror as her sister and brother-in-law backed away from the men, stood just in front of where she hid in the closet.
“Don’t do anything stu—” John’s voice was lost in the eruption of gunfire.
Gunshots resounded in the air. A total of six. Miniexplosions not loud enough to penetrate the walls of the house, not loud enough to beckon help. But loud enough, strong enough for the bullets to kill John and Alicia.
John fell forward, crashing to the floor like a huge oak felled by a lumberjack’s ax. Alicia flew backward and smashed into the closet door. A bullet slammed into the wall just above Allison’s head. Blood splattered through the slats, a fine spray on her face, her chest.
Shoving a hand against her mouth, Allison tried to still a scream of disbelieving terror. No! Oh, God…no! This couldn’t be happening. Her mind raced frantically to make sense of the scene unfolding in front of her.
She fought the impulse to run to her sister, to try to help her. Someplace in her terror-filled mind, the instinct of survival kept her rooted in her hiding place.
Quiet. She had to stay quiet. If they found her, they’d kill her, too. She had to stay alive. She had to stay alive so she could tell somebody what happened here….
The voice came from some distant place, but it had nothing to do with her. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and shoved her hand harder against her mouth.
Blood. There was too much blood. Alicia was dead—murdered, her blood on Allison’s face. Dear God, all that blood. Why had this happened? Why? Why?
“Cecilia!” The deep male voice called again, this time more forcefully.
She shrank deeper into the closet, pressing her back into the corner in an attempt to escape.
A stinging slap across one of her cheeks jarred her from her nightmare landscape to the present. In an instant, she realized she was a long way from John and Alicia’s home. She was in Montana. Mustang, Montana.
“Sheriff Wilder?” she whispered hesitantly.
“Jesse,” he corrected her. “I’m right here.” His hand closed around one of hers. His hand was large and warm, and offered comfort despite its unfamiliar feel.
Her other hand reached up, hit clothes hanging above her. “I’m in the closet, aren’t I?” Weary discouragement weighed heavy on her shoulders.
“Yeah.” His hand tightened around hers. “Why don’t we get you out of here?”
She’d had the nightmare again. No, not a nightmare, but rather a tormenting replay of the horror she’d endured. And, as always, she’d sought the safety of the nearest closet.
When would this end? Would her life—would she ever be normal again?
Embarrassment battled with overwhelming despair as he guided her out of the small confines and into the bedroom. “How did you know I was in there?” she asked. With a tinge of reluctance, she pulled her hand from his.
“I’m sorry. I was asleep. It was a nightmare.” She crossed her arms in front of her and hugged her shoulders with her hands. “I guess Keller didn’t warn you about my nightmares.”
“Keller didn’t tell me much about anything,” he said dryly. “Are you all right?”
She released a sigh. “Embarrassed. Mortified, but yes, I’m all right.”
“No need to be embarrassed,” Jesse said in an obvious attempt to comfort. “Everyone has nightmares at one time or another.”
She said nothing, but she wanted to say that not everyone had nightmares that drove them into the deepest recess of a closet.
“If you’re hungry, I’ve got some dinner ready in the kitchen,” he said.
Dinner. The normalcy of it further comforted her. “That sounds good. I’d just like to freshen up a bit.”
“Sure. I’ll just wait in the living room for you, then take you to the kitchen.” She nodded. She hated this dependency, she thought as Jesse left her alone at the bathroom door. A moment later she splashed water over her face and stared at the place where she knew a mirror probably hung over the sink.
Staring with all the concentration she could attain, she tried to force herself to see. A glimmer of light. A pale strand of illumination.
She desperately wanted to see something…anything. But the blackness that had become her world remained impenetrable.
It was as if she’d swallowed whole the darkness of night, and the tenebrous shades of black not only resided in her, but had become the sum being of her.
Odd, that even in complete darkness, while asleep and in the throes of a nightmare and in a strange house, she had found the closet.
Had she fumbled her way to the enclosure that comforted her? Or had her sight momentarily returned while she’d dreamed, allowing her to find the closet where she could hide and feel safe?
Turning away from the sink, she felt around until her hands touched the terry cloth of a towel. She dried her face and hands, then left the bathroom. Carefully maneuvering out the door and down the hallway, she headed toward the living room. She stifled a gasp as a hand touched her elbow.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Jesse said.
“It’s all right. It’s just disconcerting to be touched when you can’t see who is doing the touching.” She relaxed and allowed him to guide her through the living room. She knew they’d entered the kitchen when the carpet beneath her feet turned into tile.
“I hope you like hamburgers,” Jesse said as he led her to a chair at the table.
“Hamburgers are fine,” she assured him. She touched the edge of her plate, the handle of a fork to orient herself.
“Mustard or ketchup?” Jesse asked.
“A little mustard, please.” She heard the squirt of a bottle, then sensed him placing the burger on her plate. “Thank you.”
“Chips?” he offered.
“Sure,” she agreed, just wanting to get the meal over and done with. Eating was one of the many things that had become sheer torture since she’d lost her sight. Finger food had become her friend.
Within minutes they were eating, the meal accompanied by the strained silence of strangers who weren’t quite sure what to say to each other.
“So, tell me about Mustang, Montana,” she said in an effort to break the uncomfortable silence.
“There isn’t a lot to tell. Small town, slow pace, good people. It’s a great place to grow up and a great place to grow old.”
“You love it here,” she observed. She’d heard the warmth in his voice as he spoke of the town.
“I do,” he agreed. “Mustang is a small town with a big heart. I left for four years to go to college, then went on to the police academy, but my heart never really ever left.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “Do you have family here?”
The moment the question left her lips, the despair of her loss echoed within her heart.
Never again would she be able to share with her sister the laughter or the tears that life so often contained. Never again would she know the comfort of a sisterly hug.
“No, no family. My father died three years ago in a car accident and my mother passed away seven months later. The doctors said it was heart failure, but I’ll always believe it was a broken heart.”
He cleared his throat, as if embarrassed by the personal disclosure. “Actually, even though I have no blood family here, everyone in Mustang acts like they’re family. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and if you have a problem of any kind, somebody is always ready with advice.”
“If everyone knows everyone else’s business, then I guess it would be smart for us to know our business,” she said.
“You’re talking about our cover story.”
She nodded and chewed a chip thoughtfully. “I really hate to tell people we met while camping because I know absolutely nothing about it.”
“You’ve really never been on a camp out? Didn’t you ever sleep in the backyard with friends or go to Girl Scout camp?”
She heard the incredulity in his voice. “No outdoor sleepovers, no Girl Scouts. The closest I’ve ever come to camping out was when my sister and I made a tent in our bedroom and pretended we were wilderness guides.”
The memory brought with it a glow of happiness as she remembered that night. She and Alicia had fashioned a tent from the top of their dresser to the top of their bed. They’d spent hours making shadow animals on the ceiling with the aid of a flashlight.
They’d eaten an entire package of cookies while making up scary stories to entertain each other. Their mother had grounded them the next morning when she’d seen the mess they had made, but the night’s adventure had been worth the punishment.
The warmth of the memory battled with the coldness of loss, creating a whirlwind of grief to whip through her.
“Cecilia?” Jesse pulled her from the memory.
“We can tell everyone we met camping,” she said, suddenly changing her mind. “We can tell them I was camping with my sister and you were at the site next to ours. I don’t think anyone will really ask me about the actual camping experience, do you?”
“I sincerely doubt it.” She heard the crunch as he ate a potato chip, then he continued. “And we’ll tell everyone that since that time we’ve been burning up the phone lines.”
She nodded. “Then it’s official. You now have a girlfriend.” She finished the last bite of her hamburger, then gazed across to where she knew he sat. “Will people think it odd that you fell in love with a blind woman?”
“People will find it odd that I’m in love with anyone.”
Again she heard a smile in his voice. “Why is that?” she asked curiously.
“I’ve been the elusive bachelor of Mustang for a long time now. Mothers try to set me up with their daughters, aunts corner me in stores and tell me about the charms of their nieces.”
“You must be very good-looking,” she observed.
The smile she’d heard in his voice turned into full-blown laughter. He had a wonderful laugh. Deep and resonant, it brought with it a wealth of warmth that fluttered inside her, momentarily banishing the frozen tears that had encased her heart.
“No, not particularly good-looking,” he replied. “Just one of the few young, available bachelors in town. Besides, you know what they say about women and men in uniform.”
Men in uniform. Suddenly her body went cold. John and Alicia had worn the blue uniforms of the Templeton Police Department.
They had loved working law enforcement in the small Chicago suburb. Uniforms with badges. Symbols of safety. And yet the thought of those badges and dark blue outfits evoked dreadful disquiet. Forcefully she shoved away thoughts of her last family.
Instead she focused on the man across from her, the man she could smell, could sense, but couldn’t see. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you it wasn’t polite to ask somebody their age?” There was a soft, teasing lilt to his tone.
“My mother taught me that if you want to know something, ask.”
“Smart woman, your mother. I’m almost thirty.”
“Why haven’t you married and started a family? I thought people in small towns married young.”
“Relationships have always seemed too complicated and difficult to maintain. I love my job, I like my home. That’s always been enough for me.”
She smiled. “No wonder you’re considered a catch. There’s nothing like the challenge of a confirmed bachelor to whet the appetite of single women.”
“Speaking of appetites, would you like another hamburger?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.” She heard his chair scoot back and knew he’d gotten up from the table. “I’m sorry I can’t help with the cleanup. Dishes that feel clean don’t always look clean.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not real.” The words fell from her mouth without any warning.
“My blindness. It’s not real.”
There was a long moment of silence. “What do you mean? Are you faking your blindness?” She heard the bewilderment in his voice.
“No, the blindness is real, but there’s no physical reason for it. It’s psychosomatic. Hysterical blindness is what the doctors call it.” She couldn’t help the anger that sharpened her tone.
She was sorry she’d brought it up. The whole thing made her feel weak, stupid and crazy. And now he would think she was weak, stupid and crazy.
“This happened at the same time as whatever happened that put you in protective custody?” he asked softly.
She nodded. “I’ve been blind for a month. The doctors say my sight could return at any time.” They’d also said it was possible it might never return, but she refused to consider that possibility.
He remained silent and she continued. “I just thought you should know. I haven’t had time to adjust much, so I’m not what you’d consider a high-functioning blind person.” She couldn’t help the bitterness, the slight ache of the unfairness of it all that colored her voice. “But we won’t tell your friends that not only did you have the misfortune of falling in love with a blind woman, but a crazy one, as well.”
There was another long pause. “Self-pity isn’t very becoming.”
His words hung in the air for a long moment, and for that singular moment, she couldn’t believe he’d had the audacity to accuse her of self-pity. What did he know about her life, about her?
Anger, swift and self-righteous, suddenly filled her. She stood, allowing the anger free reign. “How dare you!” she exclaimed. She glared in the direction she thought he stood. “You aren’t the one who has lost everything. You have no idea what I’ve been through…what I’m continuing to go through.”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was overreacting, that her anger far exceeded the offense, but it was an anger that had been building inside her since the night her world had exploded apart through inexplicable violence and gut-wrenching terror.
She couldn’t corral the anger now that it had been set free. It was much easier to finally give in to it, to allow it to consume her.
“You have your nice life in a nice town,” she said, her voice strident. “I’ve lost my family, my career and my sight. Excuse me if I drift momentarily into self-pity. I think I’ve earned the right. However, if it makes you uncomfortable, I’ll take it into my room.”
She desperately wanted to make a dramatic, graceful exit, but as she swept away from the table, she crashed into the corner with her hip, then bumped into the doorway.
Thankfully Jesse didn’t reach out to help her, as if instinctively knowing she needed to leave under her own steam, even if she were black and blue by the time she reached her room.
Jesse winced as he heard her bump into the coffee table, then bang into the end table. A moment later he heard the slam of her bedroom door.
He released a sigh, and worried his hair with a sweep of his hand. He was sorry for his thoughtless words. But he had a feeling she didn’t want to hear an apology at the moment.
Her family. She’d said she’d lost her family. A husband? Children? He remembered vividly his mother’s grief when his father had died, a grief so debilitating, it had eventually stolen her will to live.
It was the memory of that grief that had induced Jesse to decide he’d prefer to live his life forever alone than to risk experiencing a loss so enormous. Love began with such promise, but always ended in heartache.
As he worked to clean up the dinner mess, his mind went over what little information she’d given him, provoking more questions than answers.
She was right about one thing: he didn’t know what had happened to her, and he had no right to judge or censure her.
He finished cleaning the kitchen and went into the living room. His usual routine was to turn on the television and relax until bedtime. But tonight he didn’t turn it on, felt as if it would be rude to do so since Cecilia couldn’t watch with him.
What did Paul do in the evenings? How did he spend the dark hours of his life? These questions drifted into his head, unwelcomed and disturbing.
Jesse had made the decision years ago to walk out of his best friend Paul’s life, knowing his presence would forever be a reminder of the tragedy Paul had endured.
Damn Bob Sanford for handing him this particular assignment, and damn Cecilia Webster for making him remember what he’d spent so many years trying to forget.
He paced the living room restlessly, his thoughts on Cecilia. Hysterical blindness. Jesse had never heard of such a condition, but he knew the mind was capable of many things.
He froze as he heard the guest room door open.
“I’m right here,” he replied as Cecilia entered the living room.
Slowly she made her way across the room to the sofa and sat. “I think I owe you an apology,” she said as she folded her hands in her lap.
“No, I owe you one,” he countered. He sat down opposite her. “You were right when you said I have no right to judge you or comment on where you are in your life at the moment. I don’t know what’s happened to you, and it’s none of my business. My business is to keep you safe.”
“Okay, you’re right. You owe me an apology.” For the first time since she’d arrived, a small smile graced her lips. “And I accept, but only if you accept mine, as well.”
“Done,” he replied. She was pretty without a smile, but with her lips curved upward, she was more than pretty, and a stir of pleasure coursed through him.
“So, tell me…what do the good people of Mustang do in the evenings to pass the time?”
Jesse shrugged, then remembered she couldn’t see the gesture. “We don’t have a movie theater, no bowling alley or shopping mall, so entertainment is pretty limited.”
Jesse realized that while he talked, he was studying her features. Society taught people that it was impolite to stare, but in this case, there was no need to look away or avert his gaze for politeness’ sake.
Whatever sleep she had gotten before the interference of her disturbing nightmares had been enough to erase the circles beneath her eyes. He assumed she wore no makeup and marveled at the length of her dark lashes. She had the smoothest skin he’d ever seen, broken only by a tiny mole just above the left corner of her lips.
He realized he’d stopped talking and wondered if she’d sensed he was staring at her. “I was just gathering my thoughts,” he said. Then he continued. “Most of the adults of Mustang are porch-sitters. Almost everyone has a porch swing or chairs, and on nice evenings you can hear neighbors calling back and forth to one another. Then, at about seven-thirty or so, a lot of people drift down to the diner for dessert and coffee and gossip.”
“Quite a different life-style from—” She caught herself. “From where I come from.” She shifted positions on the sofa and he caught a whiff of her pleasant floral perfume.
She obviously didn’t trust him yet and was afraid to let him know what city held the secrets of her past and the events that had brought her to Mustang.
“Without movie theaters or shopping malls, what do the youth of Mustang do for entertainment?”
“The town holds a lot of dances and social gatherings, but most of the time the teens gather at a little stream just outside of town. There’s a tree down there they call the kissing tree and legend has it if you kiss a girl beneath that tree, her heart will belong to you through eternity.”
She smiled. “Have you ever kissed a girl beneath the tree?”
“Nah. Came close a couple of times in my youth, but the idea of eternity always loomed larger than any desire to steal a kiss.” He frowned. “At the moment, the kissing tree and the surrounding area is off-limits to everyone.”
“Why is that?”
Jesse stood, restless as he thought of the latest criminal case to strike the small town. It was the craziest crime he’d ever had to deal with. “Two weeks ago a woman was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night.” Jesse paced from the chair to the window. “She was bound, blind-folded and gagged. Apparently she was taken to the kissing tree, kissed, then left there. She was found by a couple of teenagers.”
“How horrible. Was she hurt?” She spoke first to the chair, then toward the window, as if unsure exactly where he stood.
“Physically, no. But she was terribly traumatized.” He left the window and again sat in his chair, realizing it was easier for her to talk to him if he remained static. “At first we figured it might be a bad joke, some sort of prank or bet carried out by some kid. Then last week it happened again to another single woman.”
“You still think it’s kids playing jokes?”
“No.” Jesse threaded a hand through his hair and forced himself to remain seated. “If the females were teenagers, then I might still think another teen was responsible, but these women aren’t teenagers. The first is twenty-six and the latest is twenty-eight. They aren’t kids.”
“You certainly didn’t need the extra responsibility of a blind woman in your care right now,” she said, only this time he heard no tinge of self-pity in her voice. She was merely stating the obvious.
“I wouldn’t have mentioned this to you at all, but if you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’re sure to hear about it from other sources.” Jesse rubbed his stomach, where he thought he might be trying to develop an ulcer. “Mustang’s intrepid social reporter has decided to take it upon herself and become the reporter detailing the case of Casanova.”
His stomach burned as he thought of Millicent Creighton, who at the best of times could be an irritant, but lately had been a veritable pain in the rear. Twice in the last week, he’d caught the older woman snooping around the kissing tree, looking for clues to the “madman who held Mustang in his grip of terror.” The last time he’d caught her there, he’d threatened to arrest her if he found her there again.
“Casanova…is that what you’re calling him?”
“That’s what our friendly reporter, Millie Creighton, has dubbed him.”
She released a sigh and twisted a strand of her hair between thumb and forefinger. Jesse noticed that her hand trembled slightly. “There’s really no place in this world that’s truly safe, is there?”
She didn’t wait for his reply, but rather continued. “You think you’re safe in your own home, or in a family member’s home, but there are no guarantees. You think you’re safe in your own bed, but that isn’t necessarily so, is it?”
Her unseeing gaze found him, her eyes luminous, yet holding the shadows of whatever nightmare she’d endured. “Tell me I’ll be safe here, Jesse. I just need to know that for a little while I can let go of the fear inside me.”
As Jesse saw the haunting of her eyes, felt both the tragedy and the fear that emanated from her, he wished he could reassure her, promise her sanctuary, but Jesse had never been one to make false promises.
He knew nothing about her situation, knew nothing about what danger might find her here. He wouldn’t lie, couldn’t give her guarantees that didn’t exist.
Something—an expression of need in her eyes—touched him, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. He didn’t want to get caught up in her drama, didn’t want to know her life history or what had so dramatically changed her life. She was a job—nothing more, nothing less. In two weeks’ time she’d be gone, back to where she belonged.
“My job is to keep you safe, and that’s what I intend to do.” His job wasn’t to help her work through her state of blindness, nor was it to aid her in adjusting to the losses fate had thrown her way.
Still, being sure in his mind what his responsibilities were where she was concerned, didn’t dispel the feeling that if he wasn’t very careful, he could be in way over his head with this woman.
Allison awoke to sunshine warming her face. For a moment she remained still, pretending that when she opened her eyes she’d have to squint against the brilliant morning light streaming through the window.
She’d never dreamed that one day she would miss that eye-watering, slight sting of looking directly at the sun.
She stretched languidly, realizing that despite the unfamiliarity of the bed, she’d slept well. No nightmares had come to haunt her, no dreams of any kind had disturbed her rest.
Drawing in a slow, deep breath, she thought of the conversation she’d shared with Jesse last night. She’d been seeking comfort, his absolute certainty that she would be safe while in Mustang, but he’d been unable to offer her any absolutes.
She frowned thoughtfully as she realized what she’d really wanted from Jesse was more than a mere assurance that she’d be safe in Mustang; she’d wanted him to tell her that her blindness would eventually go away, that the bad guys would be put behind bars, that she’d be able to pick up the pieces of her life and that eventually the sharp, intense heartache of losing John and Alicia would fade. She’d wanted the impossible from him.
Opening her eyes, a momentary flare of disappointment flowed through her. Darkness. Always darkness. What scared her was that with each day that passed, she expected nothing more.
She was beginning to accept her blindness, and that frightened her as much as anything.
Irritated with her thoughts, she got out of bed. Grabbing the robe that awaited her, she pulled it around her and headed for the bathroom.
She was reaching for the bathroom doorknob when the door suddenly flew open, throwing her off balance. She stumbled forward.
“Whoa,” Jesse exclaimed. He grabbed her by the shoulders and her hands found the broad expanse of his chest.
Her senses filled with the scent of him, the utterly male, overwhelmingly enticing fragrance of spicy soap and shaving cream. At the same time, her fingertips registered the fevered warmth of his skin and the strength of the smooth muscles beneath.
For one crazy moment she wanted to lay her head against his chest, feel those strong muscles beneath her cheek, listen to the rhythm of his heart beating as his arms enfolded her tightly.
She stepped back, still slightly off balance as she quickly pulled her hands from his chest, as if flames of fire danced just beneath the surface of his skin.
His hands remained on her shoulders and she could feel their warmth penetrating the thin material of her robe. “You okay?” he asked, his voice huskier than usual as he finally dropped his hands.
“Fine. I just got off balance for a moment.” She felt the blush of her cheeks. She pulled her robe more tightly around her, hoping desperately that she was sufficiently covered. “I’ll go back to my room….”
“No, I’m finished in here. I’ll just get out of your way,” he said, and brushed past her into the hallway. “What would you like for breakfast?”
“Just coffee is fine. I’m not much of a morning eater.”
“Ah, your loss. I make a mean omelet.”
“Okay, maybe just a small one.” She smiled. “A woman has a right to change her mind, right?”
He laughed, the deep sound permeating through her. “From what I understand about women, it’s the one thing you can count on.” He hesitated a moment. “You need help getting to the kitchen?”
She shook her head. “I’ll manage.”
A few moments later, standing beneath the warm spray of the shower, she thought of her words. She’d manage. Perhaps it was time to stop wishing her blindness away and learn to manage what fate had handed her.
She could learn Braille, buy a computer program that would talk so she could write letters and such. There were all kinds of products available to help the visually impaired.
No! Her mind rejected the thought. Some place deep inside her was the superstitious fear that if she learned to cope with her blindness, then fate would keep her forever blind. She didn’t want to cope. She didn’t want to manage. She wanted to see. She wanted her life back.
Leaning her head beneath the brunt of the spray, she allowed shampoo and thoughts of blindness to drain away. Instead, her mind replayed that moment when her hands had touched Jesse’s chest.
Heat rushed through her at the memory.
She wished she’d had an hour to explore the muscled contours and smooth skin, wished her fingers could have taken the time to give her the mental picture that her eyes couldn’t provide.
Shutting off the water, she pulled the shower curtain open and reached for the towel near the sink, her mind still filled with thoughts of Jesse.
She pulled her robe back on and left the bathroom. In her room, she quickly dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
As she brushed her hair, she recognized her vulnerability with Jesse. It would be easy to fall into some sort of demented romantic fantasy where he was concerned. He was her protector, her single contact with the world at large. Where Keller had been cold and impersonal, Jesse exuded a warmth that was appealing.
However, she couldn’t forget that, to him, she was an assignment. Nothing more. Nothing less. Besides, she thought with a touch of bitterness, what man in his right mind would want to saddle himself with a helpless blind woman? A blind woman who several Templeton cops would love to see dead.
All the lessons her mother had taught her about independence and self-reliance replayed in her mind—needing a man was a weakness not to be tolerated. She’d lectured over and over again that ultimately a woman could only depend on herself for survival, and depending on a man for anything was the work of a fool.
Allison ran a hand over her hair, feeling for errant strands. Satisfied that she looked presentable, she left the bedroom, deciding that she’d indulged herself in deep thought for entirely too long, especially considering the fact that she had yet to have a cup of coffee.
As she entered the kitchen, she drew in a deep breath of the luscious scents that permeated the room. The fragrance of fresh brewed coffee battled with browning sausage and onion. “Something smells wonderful,” she said as she eased into the same chair she’d sat in the night before.
“I love breakfast. Coffee?” Jesse’s voice came from someplace to the right of her.
“Cream or sugar?”
“No, just black.” She heard the sound of a cup being set in front of her. “Thanks.” She reached out with both hands and wrapped her fingers around a sturdy ceramic mug.
“The omelets will be ready in just a few minutes,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a baby.” She took a sip of her coffee. “How about you?”
“I almost always sleep like a baby.”
She took another drink of her coffee, enjoying the warmth of the sun at her back. “It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. How—how did you know?”
She smiled as she heard the surprise in his voice. “Don’t worry, I’m not a psychic. There must be a large window near my bed. I could feel the sun shining on me this morning.”
“It’s a typical gorgeous Mustang day,” he said, and set a plate in front of her.
She waited until she heard his chair scoot across the tile and knew he was seated across from her at the table. “A typical gorgeous Mustang day,” she repeated with amusement. “You make Mustang sound like Camelot.” She picked up her fork and attempted to cut off a mouthful of the omelet.
“It’s as close to Camelot as you can get,” he replied. Again an easy amusement lightened his voice, an amusement that was wonderfully attractive. “It only rains after sundown and July and August may not get too hot.”
Allison laughed in delight. “You know the song,” she said. Who would have thought a sheriff from Montana would know the title song of a Broadway show?
“My senior year in high school, the drama department put on Camelot. In order to graduate, all seniors had to work on the production in some capacity or another.” He paused a moment, then continued. “I made my debut as a thespian in Camelot.”
“Really? What role did you play? King Arthur? Lancelot?”
He laughed. “Nothing quite so illustrious. I was one of the knights of the Round Table who didn’t have a single line of dialogue. I just wore cardboard armor and looked pure and knightly.”
“It must have been fun,” she said, wistful at the thought of all the high school experiences she’d missed out on. “Our school did plays, but I never got to participate.”
She paused a moment to take another bite of the omelet, her thoughts winging backward to her adolescence and teen years. “My sister and I were raised to believe that extracurricular activities were a waste of time. School was for an education to pursue whatever career would be our livelihood. Spare time was used for jobs to save money for college. There was no time for glee club, or football games, or dating or plays.”
“Sounds pretty dismal,” he said, no censure or judgment in his voice.
“It was,” she admitted. “Although I understand now what motivated my mother. She was twenty when my father walked out on her—on us. She had two babies less than a year apart in age and no education or job.”
“Did you ever hear from your father again?” he asked.
“No. I don’t even remember him. I was only a year old when he left.” She paused a moment to sip her coffee. “Anyway, Mother worked like a demon to support us. At the same time she went to college and got a degree in accounting. By the time Alicia and I were in high school, my mother had a very successful accounting business with four people working for her. But she never forgot those years of struggle, and she was determined we’d never have to go through similar experiences, that both of us would be able to survive without a man.”
Allison released a slightly bitter laugh. “Thank goodness my mother isn’t alive to see me now. I’m not exactly excelling in the self-sufficiency department.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said, his voice gentle.
She forced a smile. “You just don’t want to send me to my room for indulging in self-pity.”
His hand touched hers. It was a light touch, yet held warmth and comfort. There had been little solace in her life for the past month. The hospital staff she’d come in contact with had been efficient, the few law-enforcement officers she’d spoken with had been impersonal and demanding.
The comfort in Jesse’s touch broke through the self-control she’d fought so hard to maintain and tapped into the grief that had yet to be fully expressed. She grabbed his hand and squeezed tightly.
“They killed her,” she whispered, her voice hoarse with emotion that ripped at her heart. “They killed my sister and my brother-in-law. They shot them while I was hidden in the closet.”
Tears burned at her eyes, choked in the back of her throat, but she swallowed against them as the horror of the trauma replayed itself in her mind. “I did nothing to help them. I stayed in the closet and watched John and Alicia die.”
As she remembered the final gasp of Alicia’s life, recalled her sister’s blood on her face and her chest, she felt Jesse squeeze her hand more tightly.
The warmth of his touch met up with the coldness of her grief, creating a tumultuous tornado of emotions she could no longer contain.
Deep sobs tore through her as her heart constricted with a pain so great, she thought she might die from it. It was the grief of loss…and the guilt of survival.
She had pushed her emotions aside for weeks, focusing on the loss of her sight rather than confront the overwhelming pain of the loss of her family. Now that pain riveted through her like a hot poker stabbing her heart, searing her soul.
She was vaguely aware of Jesse removing his hand from hers. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was making a spectacle of herself and probably alienating Jesse, but she could no more stop the grief than she could go back and stop the bullets that had ripped her life apart.
In his years as sheriff, Jesse had faced many things, including drunk men with guns, a scared teenage bank robber and a vicious rabid dog, but nothing in his years of experience prepared him for dealing with her tears.
Helplessly he watched her fall apart, aware that nothing he could say would possibly comfort or touch the deep anguish that obviously pummeled her. His heart ached for her.
As Cecilia’s sobs grew deeper, more harsh, he stood. Not knowing if he was right or wrong, he touched her shoulder then pulled her out of her chair and into his arms.
She came to him willingly, as if needing to be held. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hid her face in the center of his chest as she wept uncontrollably.
Jesse rubbed a hand down her back and tried to ignore how sweet she smelled, the intimacy of her body pressed so tightly against his. “It’s all right. You’re safe now,” he whispered as he patted her back.
Beneath the comforting press of her breasts against his chest, he could feel the beating of her heart. He continued to soothe her with soft words, at the same time patting her back in a rhythmic cadence that mirrored the pace of her heartbeats.
Finally her sobs began to ease, but still she clung to him as if he were a lifeline in a sea of tears. Jesse felt her heartbeat slow, returning to a more normal pace. Her weeping halted altogether, but still she remained in the circle of his arms.
She raised her head, as if to look at him. Her lashes were still damp, long dark spikes that emphasized the beauty of her eyes despite their slight redness. “Thank you,” she whispered with a tremulous smile. “That had been building for a while.”
“Tears are supposed to be cathartic,” he replied. “You want to talk about it some more?” he asked. He wished she’d move away as he felt himself responding in a decidedly unwanted way. But she remained unmoving, her lower body still pressed against his.
“In a minute. What I’d like to do right now… I’d like to know what you look like.” She removed her arms from around his neck and instead placed a hand on either side of his face. “I can only see you through touch. Do you mind?”
Before he could reply, her fingertips moved across his forehead, down the bridge of his nose, then across his eyes. Slowly, deliberately, her cool fingers explored the contours of his face, each touch evoking heat inside him.
“What color are your eyes?” she asked, her breath warm on his face. He realized his heart was now beating a rhythm faster than normal.
She nodded, and continued her exploration of his facial features. Slowly, methodically, her hands continued to work.
When her fingers danced across his lips, he fought an impulse to open his mouth and kiss her fingertips. He breathed in relief when she moved to his hair.
“Black,” he said, answering the question before she could verbalize it.
“Thank you,” she said, and finally stepped back from him. “I’m sorry about ruining your breakfast.”
“You didn’t ruin anything,” he replied. “I’d already finished my omelet when you got upset. So, you want to talk? You don’t have to,” he added hurriedly. “It’s not imperative that you tell me anything. I understand if you don’t trust me.”
“Trust you?” She smiled ruefully. “If I can’t trust you, then I’m utterly lost. I’d like you to know what happened. I think maybe I need to talk about it.”
“Why don’t we go into the living room?” he suggested. In there he could gain enough distance from her that he wouldn’t be able to smell her sweet fragrance. Physical distance would provide emotional distance, and at the moment that’s exactly what he needed.
In the living room, she sat on the sofa and Jesse sank into the chair facing her. He watched the emotions that played across her face as she rubbed her forehead and prepared to share with him the events that had destroyed life as she knew it.
“It wasn’t unusual for me to spend the evening with my sister, Alicia, and her husband, John.” She placed her hands in her lap, her fingers laced together. Her knuckles were slightly whitened by the tension that held her unnaturally stiff. “This particular night was like a hundred others, except that instead of driving my car to their place, I took a cab.”
“Why?” he asked with a cop’s curiosity.
“I was tired and Alicia had told me earlier in the day that she’d bought the makings of strawberry daiquiris and I didn’t want to have to worry about driving home after having a couple of drinks.”
She frowned and her knuckles appeared to whiten even more as she continued. “If only I’d driven my car. If only my car had been parked out front….” Her voice trailed off.
“Don’t go there,” Jesse said softly, knowing well how easily self-recriminations could destroy a person.
She nodded, then continued. “I had been in the house just a few minutes when we heard a car pull up out front. John looked out the window and told me to get in the closet.” Her frown deepened. “Any other time I would have balked at the suggestion, but something in his tone of voice made me obey without question. John and Alicia were police officers, and John often worked undercover, so I thought perhaps he was worried about whoever was there seeing me.”
She pulled her hands apart and stood, as if finding it impossible to sit still while she told the full story. Jesse leaned forward and pulled the coffee table away from the sofa, giving her room to pace without danger of bumping her knees.
“Two men came in the front door, and the minute I saw them, I almost stepped out of the closet. The two men were police officers.” She raised a hand to push a strand of hair off her face, and Jesse noticed her hand trembled.
She paced the space in front of the sofa, the tight jeans displaying her slender legs. “But before I could open the closet door and step out, the two men shot John and Alicia.” Her voice rose slightly and she stopped walking and drew a deep breath, as if to marshal her emotions.
Jesse realized he was holding his breath. Two cops, murdered by two other cops. No wonder Bob Sanford and Kent Keller had immediately whisked her away. It was an ugly scenario.
“Apparently I passed out in the closet. When I came to, I was blind and in a hospital room. That’s when I met Bob Sanford, who explained to me that John and Alicia had been working for Internal Affairs and investigating a group of dirty cops.”
“And apparently the dirty cops learned of IA’s investigation and John and Alicia’s part in it,” Jesse said.
She nodded. “And now John and Alicia are dead, and the good guys are hoping my sight will return so I can identify the two men who killed them.”
“Can you identify them?”
She sank down to the sofa once again. “Oh, yes. Their faces are burned into my mind. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m a blind witness.”
“And what happens if you never regain your sight?” He could tell the question pained her as she winced.
She straightened her back. “I refuse to consider that possibility.”
He heard the strength of conviction in her voice, but he also heard an underlying fear.
He decided to leave that particular topic alone. “You mentioned a group of dirty cops… Did anyone tell you how many were in the group?”
“Bob Sanford told me there are eight. The Renegade Eight is what they call themselves. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know exactly who the eight are.” She forced a smile in his direction. “It seems I have a small posse probably seeking my whereabouts and praying for my death.”
“Don’t worry, little lady, the sheriff of Mustang knows how to handle a posse of desperadoes.” Jesse did his best John Wayne imitation, and was rewarded by her laughter.
“Performing that kind of a bad imitation would definitely make desperadoes run for the hills,” she said. “We’re a long way from Chicago—that’s where I’m from. Surely nobody could track me all the way here.”
Jesse frowned. He wasn’t so sure. He knew as well as anyone that cops could be quite resourceful when it came to seeking out information they wanted. Knowing there may be as many as eight dirty cops seeking her, definitely was a sobering thought.
If three people knew where she was, that was two too many. He wouldn’t feel comfortable until he got word that the eight cops had been arrested and put behind bars.
“Do you want to know my real name?” she asked.
“No,” Jesse hurriedly replied. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to tell me. I might accidentally call you by that name in front of other people. It’s best that you remain Cecilia Webster to me.”
“Okay,” she agreed, although he thought he detected disappointment in the single word.
“What did you do before all this?” he asked, attempting to get her mind off bad guys, killer cops and false identities.
She smiled, and he saw the tension slowly leaving her. “I’m an interior decorator.”
He groaned. “I think I’m glad you can’t see this place. It would probably give you nightmares.”
“It can’t be that bad,” she protested. “What’s your color scheme?”
She leaned forward, her features lit with an animation he hadn’t seen before, an animation that transformed her from pretty to something far more powerful. “You know, what’s the dominant color of the room?”
Jesse shrugged and looked around. “I’ve got a brown-and-orange sofa, beige carpeting, a rose-colored chair. I’m not sure there is a dominant color.”
“Orange sofa and rose-colored chair?” She looked slightly ill. “You’ve just managed to do what nothing and nobody has done in the past month.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“You almost made me grateful I’m blind.” The animation still shone on her features, and a stir of desire winged through Jesse, both appalling and irritating him. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” she continued. “As soon as I get my sight back and everything is settled, I’ll come back here to Mustang and redecorate your house.”
“It’s a deal,” Jesse agreed easily, although he knew it was a false promise on her part. This was a place to hide, a state of limbo for her.
When her sight returned and her life was no longer threatened, she would go back to Chicago and never look back. He knew that he and Mustang, Montana, would simply represent part of a very bad dream she would never again want to revisit.
Sheriff Jesse Wilder had lied to her, Allison thought as she sat on the sofa and listened to the sounds of him clearing the table and cleaning up the breakfast dishes.
He’d told her he wasn’t particularly good-looking, but her fingertips had told her something altogether different.
Even now, her fingers still held the memory of his skin and features. His face was slender, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. He had long lashes and she could easily see in her mind his blue eyes framed by the dark fringes.
His mouth was soft, achingly soft, and if she dwelled on it, it would be far too easy to imagine those lips pressed against hers.
She stirred restlessly and smiled as she heard him whistling “Camelot” as he worked. She could imagine his dark hair falling carelessly over his forehead as he rinsed the dishes. She knew from touching that his hair was thick and silky and she had a feeling he needed a haircut.
When she put all the single images together, what she got was a mental image of a handsome man.
A confirmed bachelor, she reminded herself. Not that she was interested. She had a life, a full life waiting for her return to Chicago. That was her Camelot.
“Want another cup of coffee?” Jesse called from the kitchen.
“No, thanks. I’m fine,” she replied. She heard him enter the room and smiled in his general direction.
“I thought maybe we’d eat lunch down at the café this afternoon,” he said. She heard the squeak of a cushion and knew he’d sat in the chair opposite the sofa.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” The thought of going out, of being vulnerable, sent a flutter of anxiety to the pit of her stomach.
“Keller told me to keep my routine as normal as possible and to tell everyone you’re my girlfriend. Every person in town will begin to wonder about you if I keep you isolated here. That wouldn’t be normal.” He sighed audibly. “Besides, trust me that we’ll know if a stranger shows up anywhere in the vicinity. A fly doesn’t land on the back of a dog, that somebody in this town doesn’t comment about it five minutes later.”
She laughed, her anxiety ebbing somewhat. She had to trust his judgment, had to believe that he not only knew his hometown and the people in it, but also knew the business of protection. “Okay, lunch out sounds good.” She jumped as a heavy knock fell on the front door.
Jesse got up and walked to the window. “Relax, it’s my deputy,” he said to her, then opened the door. “Hi, Vic, what’s up?”
“Jesse, I think we’ve got another one.” The deputy’s voice boomed loud and deep.
“Dammit!” Jesse exclaimed. “Who?”
“Maggie Watson. I don’t know, Jesse. She’s in bad shape. She’s locked herself in her house and won’t let anyone in.”
“Has she been hurt physically?” Allison heard the concern in Jesse’s voice.
“Nobody knows. Amanda Creighton came down to the office and said something was wrong with Maggie, that she and Maggie were supposed to meet this morning at the café for coffee. When Maggie didn’t show up, Amanda went to her house.” The deputy paused, apparently to draw breath. “Maggie wouldn’t let her in the house, but she says she is a victim of Casanova. I don’t know what’s going on, but it sounds like she’s freaked out totally.”
“Okay, you go on back to the office and I’ll check things out at Maggie’s place,” Jesse said briskly. “You might try to find Shelly. Maybe Maggie will feel more comfortable talking to a woman deputy.”
“Shelly left early this morning to visit her parents. By this time she’s miles and miles away from here.”
Allison listened with interest as the two men finished their discussion and Vic left the house. She tilted her head questioningly, aware that Jesse hadn’t moved from the door. “I’ll be fine, Jesse. Go where you’re needed.”
“I’m not comfortable leaving you here alone.” He hesitated a moment, then continued. “Why don’t you ride along with me? I can’t promise you how long we’ll be gone and I’ll ask that you remain in the car, but I’d feel more comfortable if you don’t stay here alone.”
“Okay,” she agreed, and stood. It didn’t much matter to her whether she sat in his car or sat on his sofa.
Moments later she was safely ensconced in the passenger seat of Jesse’s car. “Who’s Maggie?” she asked.
“Maggie is a twenty-eight-year-old who works the evening shift as a waitress at the Round-Up.”
“And the Round-Up is?”
“A bar at the outskirts of town, decorated like an old-fashioned saloon.”
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