Authors: Maggie Shayne
Sighing, she nodded, hugged him close, then turned and hurried through the house, lifting her shapely calves in between steps to tug off her stiletto heels. “I'm going to run a bath, love.”
“I'll be right up.” He watched her go toward the stairs as he punched the button for messages.
Their contents stunned him. He closed his eyes, lowered his head. “Oh, God,” he muttered.
Victoria paused halfway up the stairs. He heard her steps cease, heard her whisper, “Darling? I couldn't hear. What is it?”
He lifted his head, met her eyes. “It's River.”
Her hand flew to her lips.
“He'sâ¦he's dead, baby.”
“Oh, Ethan!” Victoria ran back down the stairs and flung
herself into her husband's arms, wrapping her own tight around his neck. He let the phone fall to the floor and held her, felt her body jerking softly with her sobs. “How? Why?”
“Looks like an accident. Apparently, he fell in the bathroom. Hit his skull.”
She shook her head where it rested against his shoulder. He felt her tears soaking through the fabric of his shirt. “Poor River. God, poor River.”
Ethan nodded. “At leastâ¦at least he's not suffering anymore,” he told her.
She sniffled. “Maybeâ¦maybe he and Steph can both rest in peace now. Maybeâ¦maybe they'll find each other againâsomewhere.”
“God, I hope so,” he said.
She lifted her head from his shoulder. “Do you have to go in?”
He shook his head. “In the morning. There will be an inquest, an autopsy. But in the morning.” He turned her to the side, put his arm around her shoulders and held her close beside him as he started up the stairs.
“I miss them,” she said. “The four of us, we used to be so close. We haven't had friends like them sinceâsince Stephanieâ¦”
“I know. I miss them, too.”
She lowered her head to his shoulder. “Why do you suppose such terrible things happen to such wonderful people?” she asked softly.
“I don't know, baby. I wish I did.”
* * *
Jax had no intention of closing her eyes, but at some point she must have, because when she opened them again, the sun was beaming in through the living room windows and the steady, if distant, call of the alarm clock was chirping away in the upstairs bedroom. The fire had died down, though the mound of glowing hot coals still threw off a lot of heat. The
makeshift bed on the floor was empty, and the blanket that had been over the stranger was tucked snugly around her instead. The shoes he'd left on the hearthstone to dry were gone. So, she realized, were his clothes.
Her sweatpants, and the nightshirt she'd loaned him, were folded and stacked atop the bedding. He'd kept the socks and the hooded sweatshirt. She was glad of it. He'd freeze his ass off outside without so much as a jacket.
She searched the house, just for the hell of it, even though she knew the man was long gone. He hadn't even told her his name.
Jax wanted to know who he was, and what he was running from. She really ought to report his presence to Frankie when she saw her this morning, she thought. But she hadn't made up her mind to do so. Having her own private mystery to solve was invigorating, and something deep inside her was telling her to hold off, to learn a little more before blowing the stranger's cover. The memory of the way he'd held her, of the sight of him nude by firelight, may have contributed to that notion, but not a lot. She wasn't a
She gathered up the blankets and pillows, and the still-damp towels, and carried the pile upstairs, hanging the towels on the racks in the bathroom, and making up the bed. Then she grabbed some clean clothes, clothes suitable for work in a small-town police department, or at least clothes she hoped were suitable. She wasn't on duty, so she couldn't really show up in her uniform. So she picked out a pair of navy trousers with a neat crease, a white cotton button-down blouse and a navy blazer. She tucked the clothes into a bag, along with fresh undergarments, her shoulder holster and her .45, then was ready to head over to her parents' place for breakfast and a shower.
As she stepped out onto the porch, a noise made her jump a little, but a quick look under the porch told her it was only the big dog, downing the entire bowl of dog food she'd left
for him. “You're a noisy eater,” she quipped, and glanced at his backside. “Figures. You're a male.”
He stopped eating when she spoke, looking at her as warily asâas the stranger had last night, she thought.
“Hey there, fella,” Jax said softly. “You don't have to be afraid. It's all right.” She held out a hand, figuring it might be more appealing if there was a steak clutched in her grip, but tried anyway. “Come on. Come say hello.”
The dog stared at her, even took a single step forward. But then he lunged past her and loped away, out of sight.
Jax shrugged, put her things in the car and popped the trunk. Then she went back to get the dishâthe dog had eaten every last crumbâand refilled it with fresh dog food.
“At least he's getting fed,” she muttered, and thought briefly how malnourished her stranger from last night had looked, sitting naked in front of the fire. That “naked in front of the fire” image just wasn't going to quit, was it? she wondered with a smile. What the hell. She was human and straight, and heâ¦he was something. Even though she could see his ribs, his shoulder blades, he was something.
She pushed the thought from her mind and took the dog's bowl back to the porch, only this time, instead of putting it underneath, she set it on the porch itself, hoping to lure the animal closer.
Then she took one last look around, unsure which stray she sought. Seeing no sign of either one of them, she got into her car and drove to her parents' place.
* * *
River had awakened groggy, to find himself warm as toast in a bundle of blankets on the floor, in front of a dying fire. As he sat up, searching his memory for clues what he was doing there, his gaze fell on the woman in the corner. She leaned back against the wall, a pillow cushioning her, her head cocked at an angle that would probably result in her having
a stiff neck all day. The red-orange rays of the rising sun painted her face in brushstrokes of light and shadow. Long blond hair framed her face. She had a small nose, round high cheekbones, and the neck of a swan. Deceptive, her fragile looks. She'd knocked him flat on his ass last night. As his gaze slid over her small form, it stopped on the place where her hand rested atop her folded legs, because it held a gun. A .45.
He closed his eyes slowly, and his memory of the night before returned. He examined that memory thoroughly, in search of gaps. He remembered taking refuge here, in his former home. He'd thought it was empty. He remembered waking to find her standing in the bedroom shining a flashlight in his face, demanding to know who he was. And he remembered, vividly, the way she'd taken him out when he'd tried to lunge past her.
He'd escaped into the cold, snowy night, only to hunch in the woods, wondering where the hell he was going to go. And then he'd seen her, creeping out of the house, looking for him, shining that damn light around.
He'd backed off, got out of her range and started to walk away. He still hadn't known where he would goâhe only knew he needed to put some distance between himself and the curious woman. But then he'd made the mistake of glancing back, just once more, and he'd seen her walking out across the frozen pond as if she didn't even know what it was. And then he realized she probably didn't.
When she went through the ice, every instinct he'd ever possessed kicked into high gear. He didn't think, he simply reacted, the way any veteran cop would. By the time he stopped to think, he was already on his belly, arms plunging into the icy water in search of the woman.
God, when he thought about how close it had beenâ¦He got her out, only to go through himself. And she'd refused to leave himâpulled him out, her tiny body showing its hidden
strength and power. Then she'd insisted he come into the house with her to get warm, even brought him dry clothes to put on.
He'd looked down at himself as he remembered, noting the too-small sweatpants he wore. Then he looked again at the woman, and another memory came. The rush of emotion that had swamped him in his drugged, overwrought state, probably aggravated by nearly freezing to death, and by exhaustion and by hunger, and by being there in that house again. He'd clung to the woman. He might even have wept.
He remembered her hesitation and then slow acceptance. The way her hands had moved through his hair and her voice, deep and comforting somehow, had told him it was okay.
It wasn't, of course. It never would be. But it had been nice to be in a woman's arms. Human contact, physical touch had vanished from his life. It had been limited to being manhandled by orderlies or injected by nurses. No one touched mental patients any more than was absolutely necessary. He hadn't been aware how much he'd missed that, being touched, touching back.
Even now, something in him whispered that he could touch her again. That if he sat there beside her, and wrapped her in his arms, she might not turn away. Amazing, to think she wouldn'tâthat she hadn't. He was a stranger to her, and she wasn't gullible or naive enough to trust a stranger just because he'd pulled her from the icy jaws of certain death. The gun she held was proof enough of that.
He slid slowly out of the bundle of blankets and took his own clothing from the fireplace screen. It was dry. The knife he'd taken from the orderly was still tucked deep in the pocket of the thin pants. She hadn't found it. His brain was functioning at a better level than it had been last night, and it occurred to him that he ought to stash that blade somewhere, in case it still had the dead orderly's prints on it. It would be the only
proof, beyond his word, that he'd killed the man in self-defense. The longer he carried the blade around, the more likely the prints would get rubbed off.
He left it where it was, for the moment, in the pocket of the pants as he removed his borrowed ones and put them on. He took off the hooded sweatshirt and the nightshirt she'd loaned him. Put on his own T-shirt, then the uniform shirt over it, and after a moment's hesitation, pulled the hood back on over them both. The shoes were dry, so he put them on, as well. He added two blocks of wood to the fire and set the screen in place. Then he took the blanket she'd left wrapped around him, walked across the room to where she lay, and bent low to spread it gently over her.
For a long moment he knelt there, looking at her. She'd given him something last night. A couple of things. A chance to call up the cop that still lived deep inside himâthe man he'd believed was long dead. A chance to prove to himself that he
still a human being, and maybe not an entirely bad one.
And her touch. Her embrace. Her warmth and her soothing voice.
He wondered if she would ever know how much those things had meant.
Finally, he turned away from her and crept out of the house. He had work to do. A long-buried truth to uncover. And he was damned if he even knew where to begin, but he supposed the first thing was to find a hideaway. A place to live, to sleep, to heal. And food. Damn, he needed food. And clothes to wear. Those would be today's missions, he thought. Today, he would work on covering his basic human needs while the drugs worked their way out of his system.
After that, he'd begin digging into the secrets of his past.
So he walkedâwalked for hours over back roads, in search of an empty barn or hovel he where he could hole upâbut he didn't find anything. Giving that up, he walked to the very
edge of town, thought about lingering in the laundromat until someone left some clothes unattended, and maybe snatching a pair of jeans or an outing shirt that would fit him. But he didn't dare get any closer to town than that. He didn't know if they were looking for him yet. And there was nowhere he'd be able to go where people in this town wouldn't recognize him. His story had been a big one almost two years ago. God, had it really been that long? Retired NYPD cop goes bad. Everyone in town must have been talking about it.
Hell, he didn't have a dime to his name. Nowhere to go. If his bloodstream wasn't so clogged up with a year's worth of psychotropic drugs, he might be able to come up with a way to scam a meal, but as it was, it was useless.
It's not useless, dammit. I can do this. Hell, I
Swallowing his uncertainty, he pulled the hood up over his head and walked into the town of Blackberry. He would do what he needed to do, make it fast and get back out of town as quickly as possible.
* * *
Dawn rose early, and crept through the house while everyone was still asleep. There were no guests at the inn this week. She had the place to herself. Bryan was sound asleep in his room, Beth and Joshua asleep in theirs. She'd been given the guest room of her choice, and she'd deliberately chosen one at the far end of the hall, away from everyone else. Aside from a few raised eyebrows, no one had commented on her pick. She needed privacy. She never knew when they would show up.
Nothing so far today. That was good. A day without them was a good day. As good a day as she got anymore.