Any day that involved closing a case or, at least, any day that didn't involve opening another, was a good day. By that rule, it had been a good day, but from the moment he'd opened his eyes with that long-familiar tension coiled tightly in his neck, nothing else about today had been particularly agreeable. It was just one of those days, the kind that really had no reason to be bad outside the inexplicable fog of depression. Pat was eager to go home, fix himself something for dinner and sit on his well-worn couch with a book and the radio on for background noise and wait for the day to be over.
He was just getting ready to head out the door when a familiar voice put his grandiose plans on hold.
"Pat, meet me in my office in a minute."
Pat, his boss had called him, not O'Neil. Whatever Bill Granger wanted to discuss, it was personal. Anxiety curled tighter in his gut. There was one subject that had been flirting with his mind all day and he had no desire to let his boss drag him down that road right now. Even on a good day, a trip down that blade-strewn alley was a painful experience. On a day like today, such a trip would leave him exhausted and incapable of doing more than pulling the covers of his bed over himself and praying sleep would relieve him from the bitter memories and empty stomach.
To pass the time, Pat studied the photographs in Bill's office. In a log frame on the wall behind the desk was a poster-sized photograph of a two-story cabin illuminated in filtered rays of golden sunlight. The structure was nearly an A-frame, but the peak was not as steep as the sides. On the desk were several pictures in weathered wood frames. Pat recognized Bill's incredible, dark-haired wife and his sister and brother-in-law. There was a new picture of a beautiful young woman with strawberry-blond hair and striking deep-green eyes wearing a day-glow orange hunter's vest and matching stocking hat. There was a rifle slung over her shoulder and a triumphant smile on her face as she knelt beside a magnificent four-point whitetail buck. She gripped the antlers with long, graceful fingers to hold the animal's head up for the camera. Pat knew she was his boss's niece and had seen her face smiling from a multitude of other photos, but he had yet to meet her.
Pat turned his attention from the pictures to the matching pair of four-tiered, wrought iron filing shelves. He hadn't seen them before. The craftsmanship was stunning and, along with the collection of rustic picture frames, did a lot to reduce the beige sterility of the room.
The captain's boisterous laughter rumbled through the closed door from the workroom. With his back to the door, Pat smiled as Bill entered noisily.
"Afternoon, Pat," was his greeting.
"Afternoon, sir," Pat replied as the older man sat down behind his desk.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that? It makes me sound old."
Confirmation of what he'd suspected. Nothing involving work would be discussed. His lips twitched upward again as Bill opened one of the drawers on the desk and took out a nondescript manila envelope. Bill was only fifty-three and still had the body he'd had at twenty while in the navy. His rich brown hair was only starting to gray on the sides and in his short beard. As usual, he wore blue jeans with a denim shirt and a buttermilk dress tie. He looked anything but old.
"So, Bill, where did you get these shelves? Don't tell me your niece made them, too."
"She did, actually. She's had a lot more time to build since she went back to Montana." Bill paused to look at the photograph of his niece. "Her friend June took this picture, and the one of my sister's cabin on the wall behind me. So, Pat, you don't have any plans tonight, do you?"
"No more than usual."
"Good. Mary wanted me to invite you over for dinner. She said something about not bothering to come home tonight unless I brought you with me."
Pat chuckled. "I suppose I shouldn't keep you from your wife's good cooking... not that you couldn't stand to miss a meal or two."
"Keep it up, smart ass. See you at the house?"
Pat nodded and left.
As he drove to Bill's house, he decided that an evening with his boss and his witty wife was the perfect medicine for his ailments. So long as that subject wasn't broached. However, Mary was always careful to steer Bill clear of it, especially on days like this one. As much as he didn't like talking about that weekend three years ago or the miserable months leading up to it, he knew he'd have been lost without Bill and Mary Granger there to pull him back from the proverbial cliff's edge. As it was, he still wasn't too many steps back from it.
"Pat, welcome!" Mary greeted him with a warm hug when he arrived at the Granger's modest house on the bluff overlooking the Indian Point beach. "I'm so glad you came."
So am I, he thought. "Can I help with anything?"
"No. Everything's ready. We'll just wait for Bill to get home. He called a few minutes ago to say he was leaving. Would you like anything to drink? Beer? Wine? Juice?"
"Water would be fine, Mary," he replied.
He followed her through the house to the back deck. The handiwork of Bill's niece was everywhere. More frames of weathered wood, like those on Bill's desk at the sheriff's department, hung on the walls, filled with family photos and more of his sister and her family and their cabin in Montana. The end tables and coffee table in the living room were all log, but the kitchen table was solid oak––a family heirloom. Walking through the Grangers' home was a stroll through a Rocky Mountain dream. Mary dabbled in interior design as a hobby and she'd put the rustic furniture and decorations to perfect uses. Her house could have graced the pages of a magazine devoted to Western living.
Pat would love to meet Bill's niece someday. Bill had tried to introduce them in the past, but work, school, distance or something else had always prevented it. There had been many more opportunities in the last three years, but…. Pat shook his head and refused to turn down that trail of thought. He focused instead on deciphering what kind of woman was Bill's niece. From admiring her work, he got the sense that she was dedicated, certainly, and artistic. But also giving, loyal, and he suspected a little stubborn. Any woman who chose to make her living in a field that traditionally belonged to men was no soft lady to take what life handed her.
With a sigh, Pat stepped outside after Mary and forcefully cleared his mind. It wasn't hard to do. Below him, the tide was washing up the broad sand spit, stretching toward the rocks farther up on shore. The old, decommissioned ferry dock stretched far out into the glassy ripples beneath a cloudless sky and to his left, Seattle glittered in the distance, bathed in the rich golden light of the westering sun. It was one of those rare, perfect March days laden with the promise of the warmer months to come.
"Oh, I wanted to ask," Mary said. "Do you know if Shannon got our birthday present? It was supposed to be there yesterday, but I haven't had a chance to call your mom to ask. I'm sorry it was late, but it took longer than we expected to ship."
"It was waiting for her when she and Mom got home from Seattle. She loved it."
"Oh, did you change your mind and meet them?"
Pat shook his head. "No. I talked to Mom yesterday. I still can't believe my little sister is seventeen already."
"Neither can I, but I can't believe you'll be twenty-nine in a few more months, either. It doesn't seem like so long ago that your father was more excited about your birth than graduating from college." Mary smiled fondly and patted his hand.
"Are you calling me old, Mary?"
She laughed. "Indeed not. You're just a pup. I'm calling me old. Was Shannon disappointed you didn't go?"
"No. I think she understands."
Mary hesitated a moment, then said quietly, "I'm glad Bill convinced you to come work for the sheriff's department. I think you're happier here than you would have been if you'd stayed with the Seattle PD."
Pat nodded. "It's certainly a much quieter job. Grandpa Antony says the Kitsap Peninsula fits me better, and he's right. I still can't believe I thought he'd be disappointed when I decided to leave Seattle. He was proud that I'd seized the opportunity to become a detective and glad that I was happy."
If Mary noticed how his voice hitched on the last word, she didn't say anything. Instead, she pointed out the beach party below them. A group of teenagers had broken away from the bonfire and were now racing across the sand toward the water's approaching edge, followed by a black lab, a border collie mix and two smaller mutts. Their excited, carefree voices rang wonderfully in the still evening and Pat found himself smiling.
Bill arrived a scant twenty minutes later to find his wife and Pat laughing uproariously at the antics of the teenagers and dogs.
"Glad to see your mood's improved, Pat," Bill remarked as he joined them.
"Your wife is a charming woman," Pat said. "I can't help myself."
"She certainly is."
Mary went back inside, leaving them to talk. Dread wormed its way back into the pit of Pat's stomach. There was nothing overly prodding about Bill's demeanor, but he suspected his enjoyable evening was about to head in a direction he didn't want to go.
"Before you give me your usual, evasive responses, hear me out."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Absolutely not." Bill took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "You're regressing. Over the last few months, I've watched you, concerned that you're sliding back down into the pit. I'd be willing to bet a large sum of money that you've had as many bad days as good in the last three months. That worries me, Pat. You've worked too hard to recover from Sara."
And there it was.
"I want you to take a vacation."
"I'm fine, Bill."
"I'd be more convinced by the truth, and we both know that isn't it."
"C'mon, Bill. It's been a long, wet and gray winter. Everyone's been––"
The look Bill gave him––brows lifted, mouth flat––silenced him. He'd never been able to lie to his friend. Why should that change now?
"There's a trend here, Pat. Every time something reminds you of Sara, you have one of these days after," Bill went on. "What did you see, hear or do yesterday that reminded you of her?"
"My mother mentioned her. First time I've talked to my mother in two months and she came up. She always does."
"What do you mean, 'mentioned her'?"
"Mom thought I should be warned, but I wish she hadn't told me. Apparently, yesterday when Mom took Shannon shopping for prom in Seattle, they bumped into Sara at the mall. She asked how I've been."
"That little…." Bill shook his head. "I'm sorry, Pat. I shouldn't be dragging you through this tonight. It just makes me so angry. What you need is a good woman like my niece to show you Sara isn't worth any of the pain she's caused you." He cleared his throat, and Pat sensed he was stalling. "My niece is the other reason I wanted you to come to dinner tonight."
Pat sat back in his chair and gaped. The situation had suddenly gone from depressing to absurd.
"Oh, no. They've finally gotten to you, haven't they? Listen, I'm sure she's a very nice girl, but…" Pat was interrupted by Bill's laughter. It boomed loud and clear in the still evening air.
Bill kept laughing until his eyes glittered wetly.
"You think that's what I'm trying to do? You really know how to bring a man to tears, Pat." Bill wiped beneath his eyes, still chuckling. "I'd bet my niece would be a much better match for you than any woman anyone in the department can find, but I refuse to do that to you. Much as I'd love to have you legally a part of my family as a nephew, I'm afraid my reason for mentioning her is more serious."
Bill pulled the manila envelope out of his bag and handed it to Pat. On the cover was one of the more unique names he'd seen. He knew it had to be the name of Bill's niece but it was spelled oddly; Bill had always pronounced it like the flower, Alyssum, when he wasn't calling her what sounded like "Allie". How on earth had she ended up with such a name? For the moment, he ignored his curiosity and opened the envelope.
Inside was what appeared to be a criminal file, but less… official. There was no rap sheet of past discrepancies or mug shot. Instead, there was a sheet of personal data including the last known address, phone number––both of which were months out of date––the physical descriptions of the man and a photo. Pat narrowed his eyes. There was something about the hazel eyes that hooked his attention, a contained fervor shimmering beneath a placid surface. He had the look of someone who had spent his entire life reaching for something unattainable and had not yet realized the hopelessness of his endeavor. The longish, messy medium-brown hair was further evidence, but beneath the mop, the man could be called good-looking. What a pity. Behind the photo was a copy of a restraining order. There were a few more pages, but Pat shifted his attention for the time being back to Bill.
"What is this?" he asked.
"The biggest favor I'll ever ask of you. Aelissm called me two days ago. I told you that she'd moved back to Northstar, but not why. Adam Winters," Bill tapped the picture from the file, "has been stalking her. It started almost a year ago, when her fiancé, Bryce Ellington, died. We filed a restraining order against him, and he's broken it, but he's off the grid. I can't find him to arrest him."
"So you want me to find him."
"Yes and no. There's more to it. The night he died, Bryce tried to rape Aelissm. Adam heard her scream, came to her rescue and started to strangle Bryce. Aeli ran out. As it turns out, Bryce died of a burst aneurysm, possibly brought about by being throttled, but there's no way to prove it. A neighbor had seen Bryce that night, stumbling back to his apartment. She thought he was drunk––and he was. By that time, Adam was long gone, so Bryce was still alive after Adam left. The landlord found Bryce's body in the morning, when he entered the apartment for a routine testing of the smoke alarms. It's a mess."
"Sounds like it."
"Anyhow, a copy of the statements and records of Bryce's death are in the back there, along with the statements Aeli gave to get the restraining order and what she dictated to me over the phone the day before yesterday." Bill paused and took a deep breath. "Adam has had a thing for her since they met a couple years ago. At first, she was flattered and I thought he would have been a better match for her. Until this mess happened, I liked him. I still want to like him, because I think he's a good man beneath it all, but something snapped that night. He's become obsessed with her. She changed her phone number, moved…. About six months ago, she moved into my sister's cabin in Northstar. Her grandparents own a place called the Bedspread Inn and she's sort of taken over operations. She also teaches a blacksmithing class at the university in Devyn, one night a week."
"So, how do I fit in to all this?"
"This is your vacation. I want you to go to Montana. Take a couple months to relax and clear your head. And, while you're at it, protect my niece and find anything you can about Adam Winters."
Pat considered Bill's request, then laughed. "Good one, Bill. You almost had me, what with the file and the story."
Bill's eyes hardened. "I wish to God this was a joke. There isn't much Aeli can't do, but when she called me two nights ago, she was in tears. I don't trust anyone else to do this, Pat, and even if I did, I'm not kidding about wanting you to take a break. You need to get away for a while, take a step back and forget about Sara."
"It's not that simple, Bill."
"I understand that. I also know that working yourself half to death hasn't done you a bit of good. I'm hoping a good, long vacation away from everything that reminds you of her will succeed where distraction has failed."
"I suppose you have it all figured out," Pat said. He winced. He hadn't meant that to come out so harshly.
"You'll stay with Aelissm, of course. She could probably use a little extra help at the Bedspread, and it would give you something to do and a little extra cash." Bill held Pat's gaze for a moment. "I love you both. I hate to see either of you struggling and by sending you to Northstar, I'm giving you a break and her some protection."
"How long do you expect me to stay there?"
"As long as necessary, on both counts, even if I have to pay you out of my own pocket." Pat sat back in his chair, stunned. This was one hell of a favor and he wasn't sure if he was up to the challenge. He glanced at Bill, saw the silent plea in the older man's gaze, and considered it. He very briefly considered turning Bill down, but his boss—his friend—had done a lot for him over the years. The least Pat could do was repay a favor.
"Do you need a day to think about it?"
Pat shook his head. "I'll do it. And I'm sure you're right. I should get away for a while. Maybe it will help."
Bill sighed with relief that included not just his niece but Pat as well. He scribbled some notes on a piece of paper and stuffed it in the file. "All right then. It's all here. We've notified the local Devyn law enforcement about the restraining order, so if you do find Adam, he can be dealt with legally. Aaron Hammond lives in the valley, and is a sheriff's deputy, so if you need any help, call him. I've included his contact information in the file, as well as all the numbers for the Devyn Police Department and the county sheriff's office. I really hope you won't need any of it. I keep hoping Adam will come to his senses and just leave Aelissm alone."
Mary's return with dinner brought an end to their head-spinning conversation. They talked about other things while they ate, but as Pat listened and talked and laughed with his friends, part of his thoughts were focused on what he might be facing and how he could best tackle the task. It was… refreshing.
"I really appreciate this, Pat," Bill said as Pat was leaving. "You have no idea what peace of mind I'll have knowing you're there with Aeli."
Pat nodded and tucked the file under his arm. He leaned down to embrace Mary and thank her for dinner and them both for the company. As he drove away, he began to wonder what he'd gotten himself into. When he got home, the first thing he did upon entering his house was pick up his road atlas. He glanced at the notes Bill had scribbled before he'd left and studied the map of Montana. There it was, a tiny dot in the southwest corner of the state, about five miles up a dirt road that bisected a narrow, wedge-shaped valley. The nearest town of any size was Devyn to the east with a population that nearly matched its elevation of just over five thousand feet. Beyond that, the closest city was Butte, many miles more to the north. His eyes traveled back to the little dot that would be his home for the next little while.
"Northstar, here I come," he sighed. Then he chuckled as he recalled the picture of Bill's niece with her buck. "Looks like someday is just around the corner. It'll be nice to finally meet you, Aelissm Davis."
Catching sight of the pan flute on top of the small television, he walked over and picked it up. When had he last played it? Not since his grandfather and namesake had passed away five years ago. He moved to set it down and hesitated. Maybe he should bring it with him. Who knew? Maybe he'd find the heart to play it again.
As he climbed into bed and tucked the blankets around himself to ward off any lingering tensions of Sara, he discovered something. Three years ago, he'd gutted the one bedroom––the only place he'd lived in the ten years since moving out on his own––of everything and anything that reminded him of his ex. The place looked like he'd barely moved in and, for the first time on a bad day, he hadn't dwelled on it. He hadn't even noticed.
"Uncle Bill, I didn't mean for you to send me a protector. That's the last thing I need or want."
"Then you shouldn't have called me."
Aelissm sighed. "You're wasting his time."
"Am I? You're calling from June's, aren't you?"
Aeli glanced at her friend, rolled her eyes and sighed again. "Yes, Uncle Bill. It's movie night. When I called you the other night, I only wanted to let you know Adam had called me again. That's all."
"You're not fooling anyone, Aelissm, except maybe yourself. You were in tears, my sweet niece."
"I don't know how Adam got the phone number here. But he can't find me. Hell, Unk, even you couldn't find this place last summer and you've been here before."
"You thought Adam wouldn't find you when you moved to a different apartment in Seattle, too, remember?"
"Humor me, Aelissm."
"I don't need someone to watch over me like I'm a child."
"I know you can take care of yourself, Aeli darling, but Adam won't stop until he's found you and when he does…. He's not the same man he used to be." Her uncle sighed and she pictured him sitting in his recliner at home, massaging his temples. "I chose Pat because I trust him and because I know he can protect you, if need be. Knowing he's there will ease my old heart."
"I know you are. All right, fine. It might be nice to have a man around."
Bill laughed. "I know that tone. You're a devil, you know that?"
"Yep. Anything else?"
"Yes, actually. Make sure Pat relaxes while he's there."
"Will he be here on vacation or to protect me, Unk? Because that seems a little contradictory."
"Both. He went through a bad break up a few years ago and hasn't given himself the chance to get past it, so I'm using one stone to kill two birds."
"A bad break up, huh? You're not playing matchmaker again, are you?"
"Absolutely not. But it certainly wouldn't break my heart if the two of you got together."
"Just make sure he gets some rest while he's there, will you?"
"I'll see what I can do. Well, I should probably get off this thing. I don't want to run up June's phone bill."
"All right. Love you, Aeli Girl."
"Love you, too, Unk. 'Night."
Aeli set the cordless phone back in its cradle and glanced at her friend. She'd known June Montana for longer than she could really remember, since she'd been just six and June only five. Then she looked at June's foster child, a scrawny twelve-year-old boy named Luke McKindel, who was curled up beside her on the navy blue couch, and was amazed by how their lives had changed in just the last year. June had taken on the responsibility of the recently orphaned boy and Aelissm's engagement to Bryce Ellington had ended rather abruptly upon his death. And yet… here she and June were, as always, best friends. She was grateful for that constant in her life and knew that if she hadn't had it in the past year, she probably would have gone insane.
It was June's off-handed comment about Luke's reaction to first seeing the valley that had made her decide to come out here, and until she'd arrived six months ago, she hadn't realized just how much she'd needed to come here. The utter peacefulness of the Northstar Valley was such a welcome relief to the constant pulse of Seattle. Besides, even though she'd grown up in Western Washington, she'd been born in Devyn and had spent the first three years of her life in the cabin. This was home. She flopped on June's matching loveseat and exhaled.
"I take it Uncle Bill is sending one of his detectives over?" June asked.
"Yeah. Patrick O'Neil."
"O'Neil? As in…?"
"The son of Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary's friends from college, yes."
"Why do I get the feeling Uncle Bill is meddling again?"
"Because he probably is. You know Unk."
June glanced at Luke and a fond smile curved her lips. "Yes, I do. When's your bodyguard supposed to get here?"
"Most likely in the next couple days. I don't need someone to protect me."
"Maybe you do."
June's tendency toward always being right was sometimes very aggravating, Aeli mused, but it was also nice to be slapped with the truth now and again. She'd thought that coming out here, to Northstar, would end her problems with Adam, and for a pleasant six months, it had. But then, two days ago, he'd called her. She still remembered all too clearly how badly her hand had trembled as she held the phone against her ear, frightened beyond words at the sound of his voice. Just leave me alone, she'd finally told him. And then she'd hung up. Running away never seemed to solve the problem, she thought, only postponed it. Damn Adam and damn Bryce! Most of this was his fault. If he hadn't tried to…. She shuddered and pushed the memories away.
"You remember our first year of college?" June asked. "Sitting up in your cabin, reading and snacking on Spaghetti-O's while it snowed?"
Aelissm smiled and felt some of the tension she hadn't realized was binding her shoulders slip away. "Those were good times."
"Grandma Davis told me about hearing you singing Christmas carols," Luke said.
"While we were out chopping wood," Aeli remarked. She tried not to look surprised that he'd spoken, but the boy was usually so quiet that sometimes it was hard not to. "I guess we were making a bit of a racket."
"I like it up here," the boy said.
June smiled and pulled her fingers through the boy's blond hair. Aelissm wondered, as she often did, what had possessed June to agree to Uncle Bill's plea that she take him. He was a good kid, very quiet, well-behaved and disturbingly clean… and Aeli admitted that life on the mountainside seemed less lonely with Luke around, but June wasn't even twenty-five yet. Aeli's mind retorted rather coldly, What possessed you to say yes to Bryce? It wasn't a question she was willing to ponder. Chalk it up to a disastrous lack of judgment, she told herself, and leave it at that.
"I can't believe he thought I was asking for help," Aelissm muttered. "I should have known he'd do something like this. And poor Deputy O'Neil is in for a shock when he sees where I live."
June laughed. "It'll be a bit of a jolt for a city boy. What will he do without his Starbucks?"
"Suffer. I swear, if he complains about the lack of creature comforts, I'll strip him down to his birthday suit and leave him out in the snow."
June smirked. "Now, Aeli, it's not nice to judge people before you've even met them," she said. When Aeli opened her mouth to object, June held a finger up for silence. "But if he complains, I'll help."
"You've got a deal. Now, I don't know about you, but watching a movie sounds dull. How about we go take a dip in the hot springs?"
"Sounds like a plan to me. Luke, run upstairs and get your swim trunks."
The boy nodded and leapt off the couch. He raced across the living room, skidded around the snack bar and counter that divided the kitchen from the living room and bounded up the spiral stairs. Aeli shook her head and chuckled. "He's a cute little monkey, I'll give him that."
"Yes, he is. You know, Aeli, I've been thinking."
June frowned at her, but continued. "I want to adopt him."
The flood of maternal warmth surprised Aeli, but June's admission didn't. For a fleeting moment, Aelissm was jealous of the bond June and Luke had built in just eight months, so unbelievably like that of a mother and her child, despite the circumstances. It wasn't just the blond hair and blue eyes. Luke looked like her son and had already shown a lot of the same characteristics, right down to June's quirky sense of humor and uncanny insight. She shook off the feeling. What had happened to them, to their promise that neither of them would ever have kids or be dependent on a man? Life happened, Aeli thought. Yes, they were still young and though she often scorned girls her age who already had children, she found it harder and harder to deny that she envied the wives and the mothers. When she'd told Uncle Bill that it would be nice to have a man around, she hadn't been entirely joking. Even after her last, fatal encounter with Bryce and despite the shivers of fear that coursed through her when Adam called or sent her letters or snooped through her life––she shuddered and told herself to stop thinking about him––she wanted someone to call her own.
Living on the mountain with June just down the hill was wonderful, like old times when it was just two best friends having fun. But something was missing from her life. In the depth of night, when she was lying curled in her warm blankets, she could no longer dismiss the loneliness.
"Hey, June, why don't you call Aaron and Henry? They always like hanging out with us."
June rolled her eyes. "Yeah, because they still have the naive hope that a swim in the hot springs might lead to them getting laid."
"It's not naive. It could happen."
"Please, Aelissm. If I were to go for one of the Hammond boys, it would have been Nick, but I don't date married men."
"And sweet Beth is about to pop," Aeli muttered. "Yeah, he's the best of the three. Henry's still too much of a partier. And Aaron… well, he's just not my type."
"Do you even have a type?"
"Not yet. Get your damned suit and I'll call them. With Luke around, they won't dare try anything scandalous."
She picked up the phone she'd abandoned moments ago and June's Northstar directory. It was a list of all the residents of the Northstar Valley and included physical addresses, P. O. boxes, and phone numbers. She stared at her own name on the list, then at her phone number. Outside of the valley and its directory, only her parents, Uncle Bill, her father's brother in Ohio and a friend or two in Washington knew the cabin number. Anyone else wishing to contact her had been given her grandparents' number. They hadn't mentioned any suspicious phone calls before they left for Ohio two weeks ago. What if Adam had somehow gotten hold of the directory? Panic raged like a blizzard through her veins. The only way he could have gotten one was from someone who lived in Northstar. What if he was in the valley right now, looking for her?
Stubbornly, Aelissm straightened her spine and refused to give in to her wild thoughts. This valley was a very close community and anyone out of place quickly became the subject of the grape vine and Aaron was on the lookout as much as he could be in his free time between his job and his family's ranch. If Adam were here, she would have heard about it. Taking a slow, deep breath and letting it out even more slowly, Aelissm reasoned that she was just jittery from his phone call the other night. He'd gotten it from someone else. That had to be it. After all, he knew all of her friends in Washington and breaking and entering didn't faze him in the least.
"Aeli, are you all right?" June asked, coming down the stairs. "You're shaking."
"I'm all right now. I just had a scare. I thought maybe Adam had somehow gotten hold of one of these," she replied, holding up the directory.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
She nodded, then dialed Aaron Hammond. He wasn't home and his twin brother Henry wasn't either. Then she remembered. It was their mother's birthday today, so they were all probably down at the main house celebrating.
"That's okay. I didn't really want their company, anyhow."
June wrapped her arms around Aelissm. Aeli drew a ragged breath and assured her friend that she would be all right.
"Maybe Uncle Bill sending Mr. O'Neil will help," Luke said, joining them in the living room. "You know, maybe he'll be able to chase Adam away."
Aeli smiled. Sometimes Luke's insightfulness, so like June's, startled her. How could a boy so young know so much? She draped an arm around his shoulders and around June's. "Let's go take a dip, shall we? Just the three of us. You don't mind two such gorgeous ladies as June and me hanging on your arms, do you Luke?"
He grinned. "I'll be the envy of the valley."
June reached over and ruffled his hair affectionately. She glanced at Aeli and asked, "So, what do you think?"
After nineteen years of friendship, she didn't have to ask what June was talking about. Aeli considered what June had said, about adopting Luke, and gazed at the boy. In just the eight short months he'd been here, he'd already come a long ways from the shy little urchin who had jumped at shadows. She glanced at June and nodded. "I think you should."
They climbed in June's new, sand-colored pickup and drove up to Aeli's cabin so she could grab her bathing suit. When she opened the door to her cabin––which she rarely ever locked unless she was going to be out of the valley––she saw that there were two messages on her answering machine. She hit the play button. The first was from Bill, letting her know that Pat O'Neil was leaving early in the morning and planning to be in Northstar tomorrow evening. He reminded her to write down every time Adam called her so that when her phone bill came, Pat would be able to look to see from where Adam was calling. He also recommended that she sign up for caller ID. The moment the second message started playing, Aelissm froze.
"You didn't have to talk to me like that the other day, Aeli. It wasn't very nice. I saved you from Bryce and to thank me, you got a restraining order on me and now you tell me to leave you alone. You're a bitch, Aelissm."
The message ended and Aeli stared at the machine. He barely even sounded like the Adam she knew with that rough, venomous voice. "Piss off, asshole," she muttered. She picked up the note pad beside the phone and jotted down the approximate time of the message, the date and what he'd said. Then she erased the messages, grabbed her swimsuit and a towel and trotted back out to June's truck, locking the door behind her.
"He called again," she told her friend as they drove down the mountain.
"Oh? What did he have to say?"
"Well, he told me I was rude and then called me a bitch. Maybe I should prove him right and shoot his balls off with the ten gauge if I ever see him again." Half of her was amused at the idea; the other was terrified that she might soon have the opportunity.
Twenty minutes later, Aelissm slid into the soothing embrace of hot water in the Ramshorn's larger pool. They were the only people in the pools and Aelissm was grateful for the solitude. It might have been fun if Aaron and Henry Hammond had been able to come, but this was better. This way, she could relax. With a sigh, she settled on the steps, covered in blissfully warm water up to her neck. She tilted her head back and stared skyward. Steam rose in drifting clouds beneath the blue-white light of the lamps around the pools, randomly obscuring and revealing the glittering stars. The night was crisp and fresh with all her favorite scents of home––pine, sagebrush, and snow. There were still almost six inches of the latter in places on the boardwalk around the pools. Aelissm grabbed a handful and held it under water, amused by how it tickled as it quickly melted.
June joined her on the stairs and they watched Luke swim around for a while, silent. What's happened to me? Aelissm wondered. She'd never run from anything in her life until that night. Yet, she had run away that night and kept running and now, here she was, hiding in a remote valley in Montana, terrified that Adam would find her.
"I'm scared, June," she said.
Her friend looked at her with concern etched in her face. "Then maybe it really is good Bill is sending someone. Having a big, strong man around might give you peace of mind, or if nothing else, a distraction."
June smiled and returned her attention to her foster son. The boy was down at the deep end, hanging off the side to catch his breath.
"Let's fling him," Aeli said. "Hey! Luke! C'mere!"
Obediently, Luke swam back to the shallow end. June and Aelissm stood, facing each other, their hands locked together underwater. The boy grinned, put his feet in the cradle and they launched his small body skyward. He went in head first, then resurfaced, laughing. For good measure, they tossed him five more times.
Aelissm enjoyed herself more than she would have imagined and slowly, she felt the tension easing out of her muscles. Everything would be all right. She had her best friend close by, good clean mountain air in her lungs and two good jobs. Except for Bryce's death and Adam's obsession with her, life was pretty good. She helped June launch Luke one more time and decided things could be a lot worse and would someday get better. Look at Luke. Eight months ago, after his father had been killed in a police shooting, Luke had been sickly, pale and skittish and now he was healthy and happy.
"He's still skinny, though," Aelissm murmured.
"Not because he doesn't eat," June remarked, watching the boy as he swam around. "He's tiny now, but I'll bet he's going to be tall." She turned her eyes on her friend. "But that's not what you were thinking."
"No, I was just thinking that I'm glad I came back to Northstar. If I have to face Adam, I'd rather do it here."
"I hate to say it, but you might have to. It doesn't matter where you go, Aeli, he always seems to finds you."
"I know. But I'm done running."