Former agent Charlotte Giles escaped to the wilds of West Virginia to build a horse farm, never expecting to need her old job skills again. But when Charlie falls for a handsome cowboy who drifts into her life, she trades her own demons for his personal nightmares.
For Drew Bailey, an ex-con who’s run out of options, hiding out in Charlie’s barn seems the safest way to avoid run-ins with local law enforcement. Drew never counted on staying around long enough to fall in love. Charlie’s body proves to be more addictive than freedom, and her heart holds the key to his soul. Her love may be his only Redemption…
t was disconcerting, getting off the bus at a fast-food joint. Better, though, Drew supposed, than the old downtown bus stop, where you’d wonder if you might have to fight your way out, and you’d never dare to go to sleep on the bench. The bus stop wasn’t actually in the restaurant, anyway. There was a little building behind it that you couldn’t see from the road, not much bigger than one of the buses.
A great many things had changed around here in the last twelve years.
He rubbed a hand self-consciously over the stubble darkening his jaw, wishing he were already home. He stood there on the little platform beside the ticket office, waiting, while all the other passengers collected their baggage and began to disperse. He searched the parking lot with his eyes, barely turning his head, giving nothing away, should anyone be watching. But there was no one there.
Drew ran his fingers through his tangled hair uneasily. He was on time. Even without a watch, he knew that. The bus driver had been in no particular hurry coming over the mountains. They definitely hadn’t arrived early. There just wasn’t anyone here to pick him up.
A pang of jealousy and desire swept over him as, one by one, the car doors opened and closed, swallowing families. There were children returning home to their mothers, brothers or sisters or best friends greeting each other, wives welcoming husbands with open arms and open hearts. One way or the other, they were all gathered up. They all had a place to go, somewhere they belonged.
Everyone but him.
He tried not to stare out of the corner of his eyes like some sick voyeur, but as the other passengers disappeared, he was left where he’d always been. Alone. It hit him this time, harder than ever before.
Not that he’d been exactly looking forward to his welcoming party. But he knew better than to head out on his own. They were supposed to pick him up, here, today, at four. He’d seen the paperwork, had copies of it in his wallet. He didn’t bother to take it out and read it again. He knew what it said.
He took a seat on the bench outside the bus station, surveying the parking lot uneasily. This was a bad start to things. He hunched his shoulders defensively and drew his feet up under the bench, wishing he were smaller, less noticeable, less likely to attract unwanted attention. He would wait. He knew how to wait.
A cop car pulled into the parking lot. Maryland State Police. He shrunk back into the shadows. Get a hold of yourself, he ordered. Even Robert Waite has to obey jurisdictions. A bitter taste rose in his mouth, and his upper lip wrinkled into a feral snarl. Not this time, Waite. Not this time.
The patrol car circled the parking lot again, then drove off. It was another twenty minutes before he relaxed enough to settle back onto the bench.
About an hour later the man from the ticket counter stuck his head out as if to say something, then thought better of it, and went back inside. A biker on a Harley rolled through the parking lot, then came back around for a second look before he, too, drove off.
The biker made him nervous, although the man wore no visible colors. Still, better safe than dead. He rose slowly, stretching his tall, lean frame, scanning the parking lot one more time before he moved inside. He’d wait there until the office closed.
His presence in the little building seemed to unnerve the ticket agent. The little man sorted the same paperwork three times, straightened all his pens, and took out the trash, all without ever making eye contact with the big man who lounged on his single bench.
Drew closed his eyes and drifted off to the private place he’d built in his mind. He could see it so clearly.
* * *
He walked toward the back door of the farmhouse he’d grown up in, and as he laid his hand on the doorknob, it opened from within. A little girl’s voice called to him, “Daddy! Daddy!” as she launched herself into his arms. “Momma, Daddy’s home!”
Laughter as sweet as a singer’s voice floated out to him, and he hefted the child to one hip as the door opened again, and the woman moved toward him, more slowly than the child had, but just as eager, the smile on her face matching the laughter in her voice. “Welcome home,” she whispered as she stretched her arms out to him.
* * *
“It’s six o’clock.” The ticket agent’s voice pulled Drew back to the present. A bleak, unwelcoming present. “We close at six. You’ll have to leave now. You can’t stick around here all night. The cops’ll be by again soon. They don’t like no one loitering around here after hours.”
The irony of that statement hit Drew hard enough to pry loose a hint of a smile. With an economy of movement, he rose from the wooden bench, straightening to use his full 6’7″ height to overshadow the smaller man, secretly enjoying the agent’s discomfort. He spared the agent a brief nod and shouldered his bag.
Outside, he surveyed the sky. It was getting late, and it was going to rain. It was more than obvious by now that no one was coming. They’d have been here long ago. There was a pay phone, but he didn’t have change for a long distance call, and he wasn’t about to ask the ticket agent for anything. Besides, he couldn’t think of anyone he could call who might actually come to get him.
He wasn’t really surprised. Somehow or other, he knew Robert Waite was behind this. Waite had political pull. The man would know he was out. Waite hated him. The man would do anything he could to get him sent back.
He had to get home. Had to get back across the state line into West Virginia. He didn’t bother to stick out his thumb. No one would give him a ride. Drew didn’t have to do anything to scare people off. He just looked like trouble. His size alone frightened most people. And if that didn’t do it, the old army duffel bag would. It labeled him a drifter, or worse.
It was going to be a long walk home. He put his head down and let his long legs settle into a determined stride as he headed down old Route 65 towards Sharpsburg. It would have been shorter to head out along the interstate, but it was only fourteen miles to the state line going this way, and it was all back roads, where he had a better chance of staying out of sight. With any luck, the Maryland cops wouldn’t hassle him before he got to the West Virginia border. A little more luck, and Robert Waite wouldn’t have the Shepherdstown PD watching for him to cross the river.
* * *
“You look exhausted.”
Charlie nearly dropped the tray of coffee cups. “Jesus Christ, Janelle, I never even heard you come in. What happened to the damn doorbell?”
“Jumpy tonight, aren’t you?” The tall, lanky young woman laughed. “I came in through the back door. I do have a key. I work here, remember?”
The girl’s laughter reminded Charlie of children playing. She wondered if she’d ever been that light hearted. “Oh, yeah. So that’s why I keep running into you. I thought you were a stalker.”
“You’re too sweet to notice, but I’m actually ten minutes late again. Don’t tell Harry, OK? Not that he’d find anyone to replace me. I just don’t want to listen to him bitch.”
“No problem. You didn’t miss anything exciting.” Charlie ran the back of her arm over her forehead, wiping the unruly curls off her damp skin.
“Like I said, you look exhausted. Rough night or no sleep?”
“No sleep. The guy who rents my hay field left four hundred bales of hay dumped at the barn doors. I couldn’t even get them shut. It’s actually been kind of dead here tonight. I’ve just been setting things out for the morning rush just to stay awake. One guy wandered in a few minutes ago. First person I’ve seen in half an hour. The rain’s kept the traffic down.”
Laughter tugged at Janelle’s mouth again. “You finally found yourself a man? Where is he? You got him tucked away somewhere so you can have him all to yourself?”
Charlie laughed at the thought. “Not that one. I may be lonely, but I’m not that desperate. He’s just some cowboy who wandered in a few minutes ago, waiting to get a ride from a trucker, I imagine.”
Janelle looked around curiously. “Where’d you hide him? I don’t see anyone.”
Charlie pointed with her chin toward the left-hand side of the L-shaped dining room. “He’s all the way around back, in the last booth, near the back door to the kitchen.”
Janelle’s eyes flitted toward the left wing, even though she couldn’t possibly see the last booth from the front counter. “Well, from what I’ve seen around here, you can’t afford to be too picky. What’s he look like? Is he handsome?”
“Jesus, Janelle. He looks like a drifter. Long and lean and drenched from the rain. Probably hungry, too. Why don’t you fix him something? I didn’t want to go in the back while I was here alone, but I imagine he could use a decent meal. Looks like it’s been a while.”
Janelle licked her lips. “Doesn’t it make you a little nervous, having some drifter lurking in the corners when you’re here alone?”
Charlie shrugged absently. “He looks harmless enough. Just wet and tired and hungry. You know the type.” And if there was something else, something beyond the rain and the night, she wasn’t going to try to explain it to a girl barely out of college.
Janelle cocked one hip and rested a hand on it, appraising Charlie with a parental frown. “You going to feed every homeless cowboy who comes through here?”
Charlie didn’t bother to answer. Instead she turned and walked back into the kitchen. Hell. She couldn’t have explained it if she’d tried. It wasn’t just his looks, though he was handsome enough in a tough, bad-boy sort of way, with that long dark hair and bronze skin and just a trace of a beard shadowing a hard, strong jaw.
No, it wasn’t his looks. Maybe it was his stance, feet spread wide, standing so still as the door closed softly behind him, rain puddling around his feet. Maybe it was the way his eyes swept the room, coming to rest on hers for just a moment as he paused there at the door. He’d nodded his head, once, as he raised his hand to touch the hat he hadn’t been wearing. Like a cowboy.
He was just a drifter, down on his luck and headed from nowhere to somewhere else. Maybe she’d been alone too long. He hadn’t even spoken to her. But there was something about this particular drifter that slipped below her guard. What was this stupid urge she had to rescue the ones who needed her the least?