Authors: Joanne Kennedy
Copyright © 2011 by Joanne Kennedy
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Randee Ladden
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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The higher you fly, the harder you fall—and the harder reality smacks you in the butt when you land. Lacey Bradford learned that lesson for the first time in high school, when the cheer team fumbled the catch after flinging her in the air. Hair flying, pom-poms a-flutter, she’d struck the grassy sidelines with a bone-rattling thump.
This time her fall was figurative, but it hurt just as much. Standing on the cracked macadam of a gas station in Nebraska, fishing in her purse for the last remnants of her gas money, it was hard to believe she’d gone from trophy wife to transient in one short month.
“Hey. That your dog?”
She turned to see a teenager lounging beside the mini-mart’s smudged glass door with a cigarette dangling from one hand. His hair was overlong and greasy, his jeans streaked with what appeared to be automotive grease and Cheez Doodle dust.
“Better take it if it is.” He flicked his butt into a puddle on the asphalt that was so glossy with oil, Lacey half-expected it to burst into flames. “Boss said I should get rid of it.”
He nodded toward a dog standing next to the Dumpster. It looked like a rat or maybe a badger. Did they have those in Wyoming? They had all kinds of weird animals. Lacey had seen a pronghorn antelope a few miles back that looked like a cross between a deer and a prehistoric donkey.
“What do you mean, get rid of it?”
The boy shrugged and looked away as the dog collapsed and rested its whiskered chin in the dirt, sighing as if resigned to its fate. Its body was small, not much bigger than a cat’s, and its head was far too big for its body. A massively plumed tail flailed above its scrawny hind end.
Hell, if she looked like that, she’d crawl behind the Dumpster and die.
Wait a minute. She
look kind of like that. Her formerly silky hair was frizzed by the heat and humidity, and her once-creamy complexion was spattered with freckles. But she was proud of the way she looked. She was a real person now—not somebody’s china doll. She’d earned her freckles, and she’d wear them with pride.
“Can’t you just call the shelter?” she asked.
The kid looked at her blankly.
“You know. Animal Control?”
“Yeah, right.” He jutted his thumb toward the west. “Closest town’s Grady, and they ain’t even got people control.” He kicked the butt out of the puddle and ground it under his heel, eyeing the dog speculatively. “I’ll just, you know, get rid of it.”
He bent his knees and pointed at her. For a second she thought he was going to do some weird John Travolta disco move, but then he swiveled toward the dog, sighted down his finger, and twitched his thumb.
“Bang,” he said.
Dang. She was headed to Grady, but it was almost an hour away. If the animal rode in the car for that long, it would probably infest the upholstery with mites or fleas or something.
The kid blew on the tip of his finger and shoved his hand in his pocket. She stared at him a moment, then patted her thigh and started toward her car.
“Come on, pup-dog. We’re going to Grady.”
A half hour later, she heard a disgruntled rumble from the backseat and checked the rearview mirror. The dog appeared to be sleeping. Or maybe he was dead—but judging from the sounds emanating from his belly, his innards were still very much alive. He sounded even worse than the car, which had frequent fits of automotive rheumatism that made it putt-putt along with all the speed and power of a Toro lawn mower. Taking the old Mustang she’d driven in high school on her road trip had seemed like a good idea—after all, it was
car, her own, not her ex-husband’s—but maybe doing a little maintenance on it over the years would have been a better one. A trip down memory lane should have been a smooth ride, but I-80 was an automotive ordeal pitted with potholes and scattered with stones.
The dog’s stomach rumbled again.
Don’t want to take any chances.
Yeah, right. She steered the car to the shoulder and slid to a stop, kicking up gravel with a barely controlled skid. She was taking one heck of a chance with this whole trip. Her resolution to swear off the ill-gotten gains her husband had reaped from his real estate scams had seemed noble at first. She’d told herself she was turning over a new leaf, turning her back on the past.
But the past kept popping up like a persistent Whac-A-Mole she couldn’t hammer down. When she’d hit the job-hunting trail back in Conway, she discovered she’d become an overnight pariah. Nobody would hire the ex-wife of the man who’d cheated half the town. Then Wade Simpson had turned up, looking for her husband, making vague threats that made her uncomfortably aware that she was alone and unprotected.
Her gut had told her to leave, and for once in her life, she’d listened.
As her hometown had fallen behind her, a spirit of adventure had taken over and she’d felt footloose—free, like a kid running away from home. Running felt as good as it did back when she was a little girl on the playground playing kick the can or tag.
Unfortunately, she was “it” this time. But she wasn’t the can, and she wasn’t going to let anyone kick her around.
She was just going to keep on running.
She let the dog out of the car and watched him lift his leg on a tuft of grass that had somehow managed to push its way through the gravel by the side of the road. He angled his hind leg impossibly high, almost tipping over in his determination to mark his newfound territory.
“Don’t get too excited,” she said. “It’s not yours just because you peed on it.”
His brown eyes regarded her with an accusatory, bitter gaze, as if it was her fault someone had dumped him at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. His sparse, spiky hair and bushy eyebrows gave him the air of an angry and slightly mad senior citizen. She was glad she’d taken him with her. He made her laugh, and laughing made her feel like something inside her had given way and released the real Lacey from the stiff little Stepford wife she’d become.
“Come on, Sinclair.” Sinclair was the name of the gas station where she’d found him. The symbol for the place was a dinosaur—a friendly green brontosaurus. If it had been a Tyrannosaurus Rex, it would have been infinitely more attractive than the dog, and it would have exuded more warm fuzzies too.
Naming the dog was a mistake. Naming him made him hers. But why shouldn’t she have a dog? She didn’t have anything else. She gripped the steering wheel and jutted her chin, glancing up in the rearview mirror to see if she’d nailed her I’ll-never-be-hungry-again Scarlett O’Hara impression. With her dark hair and pale skin, her green eyes and sharp, determined little chin, she’d always identified with the feisty heroine of
, and she’d lived her life by the philosophy of WWSD: What Would Scarlett Do?
Scarlett wouldn’t worry. She wouldn’t torture herself thinking up worst-case scenarios. She’d say “fiddle-dee-dee” and think about it tomorrow.
But the freckles weren’t helping the impersonation any. Neither was the trembling of her chin.
Scarlett had never been this scared.
Finally, the cornfields petered out and the town of Grady appeared in the twilit distance, a glittering oasis on the endless plains. Somewhere in that lonely nest of lights was Chase Caldwell: old friend and admirer and hopefully her new knight in shining armor. She hated to ask a man for help so soon after she’d set out to be self-reliant, but there was a good chance she wouldn’t have to ask Chase for anything. Back in high school, he’d do anything just for a smile and a wink. Hopefully, he still would—because a smile and a wink were about all she had to offer. A smile, a wink, and a really ugly dog.
She slowed to the posted thirty miles per hour and poked down a shoddy small-town main street lined with tortured trees and crumbling brick storefronts. It looked like a town from a creepy movie—maybe the one about that serial killer with the weird haircut, or the one where Angelina Jolie’s little boy was abducted. But it was exactly what she was looking for: a remote outpost where no one would ever look for her.
And actually, the old brick-fronted buildings had promise. The town could be quaint, if some energetic real estate agent marketed it right. She pictured the street lined with gift shops, maybe sporting goods stores, and a good breakfast place. There seemed to be lots of pickups with gun racks on the highway, and every town needed a breakfast mecca. That was the kind of thing that made a hometown into a home—a place people cared about.
That’s what she’d wanted to do back home. She’d planned to get her license and partner with her ex in his real estate office, but she wasn’t about to join him in chopping up the surrounding farmland into cookie-cutter developments. She wanted to match homes with families, find spaces for small businesses that could help the town grow. But somehow the years had passed, and she’d never gotten past the receptionist’s desk where she’d worked since high school.
Trent had always agreed she should get her license. He’d always agreed she could do more. But then he needed her in the office, he needed a special dinner made for a client, he needed her home. That’s why it had been so hard to walk away from the marriage.
He’d ended up being the only person in the world who needed her.
The tall brick-fronted buildings dropped off at the end of town, giving way to a more modest structure that crouched below a lighted yellow sign spinning slowly above a dirt parking lot.
Cars: Guaranteed Dependable.
Lacey slapped on her turn signal and swung into the lot.
She hadn’t expected Chase to be a used car dealer, and she knew better than to depend on anyone other than herself, but after the last few disastrous days, a guarantee—on a car, a man, or life in general—sounded like a sanctuary.
Navigating a motley row of pickups interspersed with rusting farm equipment, she pulled to a stop in front of a lopsided trailer with a battered cardboard “open” sign baking in the sunlit window.
“We’re going to stop here and talk to somebody,” she told the dog. He lifted his head, and the glow from the revolving sign highlighted the snaggletooth that jutted from his undershot jaw while he peered down his nose at her like an old man with bifocals.
“Don’t give me that look. I didn’t know he sold used cars.”
It was true. She’d expected to find Chase Caldwell tilling fields, not hawking cars. Back in high school, her friends had fallen into four classes: jocks, geeks, stoners, and hicks. Chase was the head of the hicks—two-term president of the Future Farmers of America and a champion breeder of goats, sheep, and every other breed of livestock sanctioned by the 4-H Club. He’d looked like a budding Mr. Greenjeans in his button-down shirts and string ties.
She smiled, remembering his unabashed enthusiasm for his chosen career field. He’d been immune to the total lack of cool connected with the farming profession, and when his nanny goat won grand champion at the Tennessee State Fair, he’d distributed wallet-size photos of the slit-eyed, pink-nosed princess to all his friends in sixth grade. She winced, remembering how mercilessly the kids had teased him about his new girlfriend. She hadn’t joined in, but she hadn’t done anything to stop it either.
That sin of omission hadn’t done a thing to kill his crush on her, though. His devotion had never wavered, surviving from sixth grade all through high school. The kid had been like a golden retriever—sweet, faithful, and eager to please.
Golden retrievers never changed. Hopefully boys like Chase didn’t either.