Authors: Maggie Shayne
It seemed the eyes widened after an unnatural time, as if it took extra beats for her words to make their way through his mind. Then he leaped out of the bed, stark naked.
God, he was thin. Beautiful, and painfully thin. He'd been muscled once; she could still see the remnants, the lines sculpted in his flesh, just rapidly losing definition. Shrinking.
He glanced down at himself, then at his clothes on the floor near his feet.
“Go ahead, get dressed. But don't try anything.”
He reached for the pants. They looked to be part of some sort of uniformâwhite pants, as if he worked in an ice cream parlor or a hospital or something. Not warm, that was for sure. He pulled them on, did them up. His feet were bare. He pulled on a T-shirt, then a white uniform shirt over it.
“Iâ¦ummâ¦I'm sorry. I'll go.”
His words were slurred, as if he'd been drinking, but she didn't smell alcohol on his breath. His hair was messy. Dark, too long, as if it hadn't been trimmed in a long time. And his face had the dark shadow of beard coming in, as if he hadn't shaved today or maybe yesterday, either. She lowered the gun, tucked it into the back of her pants while he finished dressing, knowing she could handle him fine without it. He was in no shape to fight her and win.
He took a step toward the bedroom door.
“No, just a minute,” she said, shining her light on him. “You're not going anywhereânot until you tell me who you are and what you're doing here.”
She saw the hint of panic in his eyes just before he lunged for the door. She stepped into his path, the heel of her hand slamming him square in the chest. The impact put him flat on
his back and sent her flashlight crashing to the floor. It rolled to the fallen man, came to rest with its beam in his eyes.
“I'll ask you again,” she said, standing over him. She was a little breathless, but it was from excitement, not exertion. She loved her workâespecially this part of it: the rush of adrenaline, the certainty of a win. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing here?”
He got to his feet, picking up her flashlight on the way. She took a step backward, and let him, even while reaching behind her to snug a hand around her handgun, just in case.
He lifted the light, held it high and shone it on her face, so that she had to shield her eyes. “This was a mistake,” he said, and it seemed to Jax he had to focus intently on each syllable. He was trying hard not to slur his speech. She thought he might be on something. “I'm going now. Y-you'll n-n-never shee me again.”
Then he turned the flashlight off, flipped it over and handed it to her. She could see him in the moonlight, standing there, holding her light out to her. It trembled in his hand. He was shaking. She released her grip on the handgun, reached out to take the light, lowered her guard.
He moved closer, one step, and even as he shoved her chest with the flat of his hand, his foot hooked behind one of hers, ensuring she would go down, and she did. And dammit, she landed on the handgun and bruised her tailbone to hell and gone, which resulted in her barking a stream of cuss words as the man fled. His feet pounded down the stairs.
She surged to her feet, pulling the gun and rubbing her ass with her free hand. Then she grabbed the light and limped into the hall after him as she flicked it on.
The sounds of his retreat were clumsy. He didn't go out the front door, but through the back, through the kitchen, where she thought he might have fallen down once. She raced
through the house, but by the time she reached the kitchen, he was gone.
The back door stood wide open, and as she swung her light around the room, she noticed the broken pane of glass, its sharp fingers pointing inward, while other bits of glass lay on the floor. His point of entry. There were a pair of socks there, too, and puddles where shoes must have been standing.
He'd run out into the Vermont winter night with thin pants, no socks, and no coat that she knew of. And he'd held that flashlight on her in a very telling way. Overhead, above eye level. And in his left hand. He held that flashlight like a cop held a flashlight.
She still had her boots on, no coat, but she'd survive. She had to see where he had gone. So she stepped outside, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other, and studied the footprints in the snow.
He'd headed around the house, and she followed the tracks. She had no intention of chasing this guy down, just wanted to see where he went, whether he had a vehicle or not, and if so, get the stats on it. Make, model, plates.
But she didn't see a car. The tracks vanished at the neatly plowed driveway. She walked around a bit more, and when she heard a sound, she crossed the street and moved off the road a bit, trudging past trees to the large, flat, snow-covered meadow that lay just behind them.
She shone her light around that meadow, looking for footprints, but there were none. She was sure he had come this way. She took a few more steps, shining her light this way and that.
“Why are you running away?” she called. “What is it you have to hide?”
She took a few more steps, then stood still, just listening. The night wind blew softly, whispering and even whining now and then as it blew past the naked limbs of wintry trees. And then there was another sound, a sharp creaking, cracking,
snapping sound that seemed to grow louder. She swung her head left and right, because the sound seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
And then she felt the icy rush of water over her boots, and snapped her head down. The snowy meadow on which she stood wasn't a meadow at all. It was a pond. A frozen pond. She'd wandered almost to its center, and the ice was giving way beneath her feet.
h, hell,” she muttered, and then the ice gave way completely, and her body plunged into the freezing water. The shock of the cold engulfed her, made her go rigid, drove the breath from her lungs as the water closed over her head. And then she forced herself to move, to struggle for the surface. She kicked with her legs, reaching above her head with her arms, flailing in search of a handhold. Once, she felt the edges of the ice above her, and tried to grab on, but the ice broke away in her grip.
She tried again, her lungs nearly bursting with need. And this time, something gripped
gripped her, a slick hold on one wrist, then the other, and then she was being pulled steadily upward. Her head broke the surface and she sucked in greedy gulps of air even as she blinked her eyes.
The man lay on his belly on the ice beside the hole her body had made. His eyes met hers and held them, clearer than they had been before, but stillâ¦off somehow. “Try not to move. I'll get you out.”
She nodded, the motion jerky. God, she was so cold her entire body was shaking with it. He crept backward on his belly, drawing her with him. Her upper body slid up onto the ice. But then the ice crumbled and she went into the water again. Still the man didn't let go. He held on to her and kept mov
ing backward, steadily, constantly, until he'd pulled her onto the ice again. This time, she made it farther, but when the ice gave yet again, it gave utterly, and she realized as she went under for the third time that he was in the water, too. Beside her in the hellish cold. God, they were both going to die.
He put his hands on her waist, thrusting them both up to the surface again. With a solid boost, he shoved her up and out of the water. From the waist up, she was on the surface of the ice. He gripped her backside and pushed her up higher, and she helped, pressing her palms to the ice to pull herself along. She drew her legs up beside her, shivering so hard she could hear her teeth chattering as she looked back at him. He was still in the water, hands on the ice, trying to pull himself up, but he was having no luck. He seemed exhausted.
She reached for him.
He shook his head. “C-c-crawl on your belly b-back to shore. Go on.”
“No!” She was panting, breathless. The cold burned through her. “N-not without you.” She moved closer, locking her frozen, nearly numb hands underneath his arms. “Come on.”
She pulled; he pushed as best he could. And finally, finally, they both lay on the ice, soaked, frozen. And even then she knew it wasn't safe to linger. She struggled to her knees, shook his shoulder. “Let's go.”
He lifted his head, nodded once, weakly, and began crawling. When they were nearly to shore, they got to their feet, arms around each other because it was the only way either of them could stand, and trudged off the pond and onto the land, through the line of trees to the road. There, he stopped walking, took his arm from around her shoulders, turned away and started off on his own.
Jax gripped his arm. “C-come inside. Justâto g-g-get warm.”
“Have to. You'll d-die out here.”
He held her eyes for a moment, finally gave a single nod and walked with her to the house. She wanted to run the rest of the way, but could barely move at all, much less quickly. They mounted the steps and stumbled over the porch and through the door. She closed it, turned the lock and, gripping his arm, led him straight to the fireplace.
“Get the wet things off,” she told him, stammering, shivering. “I'llâf-find something.”
He nodded, heeled off his shoes and started to undress. Jax struggled out of her boots and then went to work on her soaked, frozen jeans, her numb fingers barely managing the button. As she struggled out of them and felt his eyes on her, she turned to look at him, and saw him focusing on her legs, from her feet to the hem of her T-shirt. The gun that had been tucked in back clattered to the floor, and she stared down at it, then caught him doing the same.
“G-guess that'll be no good to me until I've had a ch-chance to dry it out.” She picked the weapon up, kicked the jeans aside and stumbled upstairs to the bedroom, setting the gun in a drawer, removing the clip and tucking it underneath her mattress. Then she peeled off her T-shirt and bra, heading for the bathroom, where, thank goodness, she found a stack of towels. No hot waterânot yet. She'd have killed for a hot bath. But towels would do. She wiped her skin dry, wrapped her body in one towel, her hair in another, then opened her duffel bag and shook out its contents. She dragged on a pair of sweat pants, a sweatshirt and thick socks. Then she located another pair of socks, big bulky ones, the most oversize pair of sweatpants she owned, a nightshirt big enough to serve as a T-shirt for him, and a big hooded sweatshirt with the Syracuse University logo in bright orange on the front. She yanked the blanket, pillows and comforter from the bed and still shivering, moved back down the stairs, trailing fabric behind her.
He sat on the floor, naked, knees drawn up, arms locked around them, head resting against them. He was close to the fire, apparently soaking up the heat. For a moment, she hesitated, just looking at him. Sitting there like that, in the firelight, he looked like a sculpture.
Man in Hell,
she thought. Who
this stranger who'd just saved her life? And how smart was she to let him into her house?
She sighed, left the bedding on the bottom step, then moved toward him, deciding it wasn't smart at all, but it
necessary. She didn't have a choice.
He lifted his head, and those eyes pinned her to the spot.
“Here,” she said, handing him a dry towel. “Wipe down and then put these on.”
He took the towel from her, seeming wary. She set the clothes on the mantel, then turned her back to him, removing the towel from her head and using it to wipe up the spots of water they'd left on the floor.
When the floor was dry, she took the comforter and spread it there, tossed the pillows on top and set the blanket nearby. Then she moved the fireplace screen aside and added more logs to the fire.
By the time she had replaced the screen, he was dressed. The sweatpants were comically short on his long legs, but the hooded sweatshirt was roomy enough. He'd pulled on the thick socks and rubbed his wet, dark hair with a towel so that it stuck up like the feathers of a wet hen, and he stood there, looking uncomfortable.
She picked up her wet jeans, hung them over the fireplace screen, then reached for his discarded clothes to do the same. But as she began hanging them, he took them from her rather hastily.
She stood there, blinking at him as he clutched the wet garments in his hands. “What are you afraid of?” she asked softly.
He averted his eyes, draping the items over the screen himself, with great care. “I'll go as soon as they're dry.”
“You're on the run,” she said. “You're in hiding.”
He said nothing, just bent to pick up the shoes, and placed them on the hearthstone, nearer the heat.
“Listen, you just saved my life, okay? Stay here until morning. If you don't want me to ask any questions, I won't. I owe you that much.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “Iâ¦can'tâ¦no one can know I've been here.”
“No? Why not?”
He lowered his head tiredly.
“I'm sorry. I said I wouldn't ask questions, didn't I?”
He drew a breath, shivered a little.
Jax lay down on the comforter and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. “It's up to you,” she said. “Stay or go.”
He stared at her for a long moment. Finally, he said, “If you tell anyoneâ¦I'm hereâ¦I'm as good as dead.”
She opened her eyes, met his. She thought he might be a cop. She knew he was in trouble, on the run, from what she didn't know. But he had saved her life, risked his own to do so. And she wasn't the least bit afraid of him. “I sure as hell won't be telling anyone tonight,” she said. “No phones hooked up yet. Cell doesn't get reception in this spot, either. You have to drive up the road a mile.”
He hesitated a moment longer, then he crawled into her makeshift nest on the floor, curling under the covers beside her.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she said, “you'll feel more like talking. Maybe I can help you withâ¦with whatever it is that's wrong.”
“No one can help me,” he said. And his voice sounded utterly hopeless. It clutched at her heart. Then he went on. “Why do you carry a gun?”
Something told her not to tell him she was a cop. Hell, he'd
find out soon enough if he was in this town long. Everyone here knew she was a cop. But she had a feeling if she told him tonight, he would bolt. Not that she was sure he was a criminal, exactly. But he was definitely running from something.
“Protection,” she told him. “A woman, living all alone.”
“You're not afraid of living alone.”
She lifted her brows and rolled onto her side to face him. “And how do you know that?”
“You're not afraid of me,” he told her.
“Should I be?”
He closed his eyes as if the question brought great pain. They didn't open again.
“Should I be afraid of you?” she asked again.
“I don't know.” His lashes were wet. Not from the water, but from tears squeezing out from his deep brown eyes. “Maybe. Probably.”
Her heart contracted in her chest. His words might be a warning, or a sign of the confusion she'd sensed in him when she'd found him sleeping in her bed. “Maybe I should sleep upstairs,” she whispered.
He said nothing, so she started to sit up. And then she gasped as the man's arms came around her. His head lay against her chest, and she thought he might be crying. “Please stay,” he said.
Frowning hard, utterly confused and wishing the hell she'd kept her gun with her, she found herself touching his still-damp hair, gently moving her fingers through it. “All right,” she said. “All right.”
She relaxed against the pillows and held the troubled man, soothing his quaking shoulders, until he went still, and she knew he was deeply asleep.
And then, even though the warmth of the fire was seeping into her, chasing the chill from deep in her bones, soothing her muscles, making her feel sleepy, and even though she hadn't
had a hot-looking manâeven a skinny one like thisâin her arms in what seemed like an eternity, she eased herself away from him, out from under the covers, and got up to her feet. She stood there a moment, staring down at him as he slept.
A fellow cop, in deep trouble, either real or imagined, had just saved her life. She owed the man. Owed him enough to let him stay the night, let him get warm. Maybe even enough not to turn him in for breaking and entering, or mention his presence here until she had figured out who he was and what was going on with him. She did not, however, owe him so much that she needed to become a naive idiot in order to repay him. She went up to her bedroom and spent the next half hour patiently cleaning and drying her weapon. When she put it back together, she loaded it with a fresh, dry clip. She took the bullets out of the other clip, dried it thoroughly and set it aside. She'd toss the bullets. They might fire, but they might not, and she didn't ever want to be in a predicament where she couldn't be sure her gun would work. She'd buy some more ammo tomorrow.
She went back downstairs, took her pillow from the comforter and her coat from the hook by the door. She wrapped the coat around herself, rested the pillow against the wall and leaned against it, near the fire, in a spot where she could have a full view of her houseguest.
It wasn't a very exciting show. He slept like the dead.
* * *
Ethan had turned off his pager after work at his wife's request. They were having dinner with her parents that evening. It was important, she said, and that thing going off in the middle of a conversation was just rude.
He'd indulged her. He always indulged Victoria. And there wasn't much he wouldn't do for her parents. They thought the world of him.
So he'd spent the evening at the Richardsons' endless and
elegant dining room table beneath a crystal chandelier. Their newest pretty maid, Lorraine, served them in her crisp black-and-white uniform. It was nice, the life Randall and Jennifer Richardson shared. A life into which they'd welcomed him with open arms.
They treated him far better than his own father ever had.
So the least he could do was turn off the damn pager.
Of course, it turned out to be the one night he shouldn't have done so.
By the time he and Victoria returned home, the hospital had left six messages on his voice mail. He saw the light blinking even as he helped Victoria out of her coat, the fur soft against his palms. It was rabbit. She'd wanted mink. Maybe next year.
“Oh, honey, must you?” she asked, pursing her lips when she saw his eyes on the telephone. “It's been such a beautiful evening. I was hoping we could end it together.”
He slid his hand around her nape, his fingers tickled by the touch of her short brown hair, and kissed her forehead. “There's nothing I'd like more,” he told her. “But I'd better at least check, okay?”