It'd been another in a long string of sleepless nights.
Tess O'Neil finally drifted off from sheer exhaustion just after sunrise, only to be awakened by a sharp bark and the bounce of the mattress as her dogs leaped to the floor.
For one terrifying second she thought Eddie had found her and automatically reached for the weapon she kept under the bed. Her hand had just touched metal when the phone rang again and she realized what had sent her dogs on alert.
The two Belgian Shepherds, Blossom and Mac, stood shoulder to shoulder next to her bed, their amber eyes fixed on the door on the other side of the room, ears pricked forward at the unfamiliar sound. Tess pushed back the covers, heart pounding. It had to be a wrong number, but if it wasn't…
The ringing continued as she and the dogs crossed the hall to the old-fashioned ranch house kitchen where the plain white phone hung on the wall next to the refrigerator. She'd had the landline connected so that she could send and receive faxes and have ridiculously slow internet. She never expected the damned thing to actually ring.
She hesitated for a few seconds, decided it was better to know than not, and reached out to snatch the receiver off the hook.
“Hello.” She fully expected to hear her step-father's drug-roughened voice either threatening or taunting her and unconsciously put a hand on Mac's head for reassurance.
“Ms. O'Neil?” The voice was deep, somewhat hesitant, definitely not Eddie. But how the hell did this guy know her name? Or rather, her assumed name?
“Who is this?” Tess demanded, then instantly regretted her tone. Brittle. Edged with fear. She didn't want to sound fearful, didn't want to give Eddie the satisfaction if the guy on the other end of the line was one of his minions. But it was hard to sound normal when her heart was beating a hundred times faster than usual.
There was a brief, quite possibly stunned, silence before the caller said, “I'm Zach Nolan. I live across the road.”
“I see.” Tess took hold of the phone cord. Anyone could say they lived across the road.
“I was wondering if you have plans for your fields and pastures?”
It took Tess a moment to wrap her mind around the unexpected question. “My fields and pastures?” she asked blankly.
“Yeah. The big green things surrounding your house.”
There was a touch of gentle humor in his voice, as if he was trying to make a connection, reassure her. Tess instantly drew back. No connections. “Why?”
“Until you took over the place, I grazed my cattle on those fields and paid a rental fee. I was wondering, if you aren't using the fields, if we could make a similar arrangement.”
He'd barely finished his sentence when Tess blurted, “No.” She let go of the phone cord and pressed her fingertips against the thickened skin on her left cheek where the stitches had been, felt the residual pain from the torn and stitched muscles below, then dropped her hand. It was a habit she was trying to break.
“You're sure?” The touch of humor was gone, replaced by irony bordering on sarcasm, triggered no doubt by her instant and adamant response.
“Well, thanks. Sorry to have wasted your time.”
“No problem.” Tess hung up the phone without saying goodbye and put a hand on her forehead, pushing the unfamiliarly short hair back and wishing she'd asked how he'd gotten her name. It had to be from that overly friendly lady who ran the local post office. Tess O'Neil was the authorized signature for the Angstrom Land Company, the limited liability corporation that had leased the small ranch where she was living. If you could call it living. More like hiding.
In reality, Tess was the Angstrom Land Company, but no one knew that—the beauty of an LLC in the state of Nevada. She could conduct her financial business without using her personal, traceable, credit cards or her real name—Terese Olan to her former employers, Terry to her handful of friends. But her grandmother had called her Tess and that was who she'd become. If she was skirting the law by informally becoming Tess O'Neil in addition to hiding behind the LLC, she'd take that chance. It beat the alternative.
She didn't know if Eddie would go so far as to hire a private detective, but he had a lot of nefarious contacts. Not knowing his reach was one of the things that kept her awake at night
Tess went to the sink and started the tap running into the enamel basin before she opened the back door. The screen door wobbled on its loose hinges as she pushed it open and the dogs raced outside. They stopped in tandem a few feet from the bottom porch step, black ears pricked forward, muscles tensed and ready for action. It was a morning ritual they'd developed since moving into the house thirteen days ago. They were city dogs, still acclimating themselves to the sights, sounds and smells of the country. As was Tess.
She watched and waited until the dogs finally dropped their guard, first Mac and then Blossom, and began snuffling in the grass, checking out the action they'd missed the night before as they headed for the taller grass to do their business.
Tess closed the door and filled a tall glass with water, turned off the faucet and leaned back against the counter. If the dogs were relaxed, she could relax. In theory anyway.
Her heart rate still wasn't quite normal. Had the caller really been the guy across the road?
She set the glass down and opened the drawer where she'd spotted the printed paper with local phone numbers while unpacking her meager kitchen supplies a few days ago. She traced a finger down the list. Nolan. Zach. Okay. He existed.
But was it him?
Her hand only shook a little as she dialed the number. Halfway through the second ring he answered.
Tess hung up.
Zach set down the phone with a shake of his head. A prank call at 8:00 in the morning was a first, as was the oddly defensive phone conversation he'd just had with the new neighbor. Defensive to the point of rudeness. What the hell?
Let it go. The woman was perfectly within her rights to say no to his offer. She could work on her delivery, but…
Zach grabbed his work gloves off the table, trying to focus on the day instead of how much hay he was going to have to buy to tide things now that it was pretty damned obvious he'd lost the pastures he'd been counting on.
His index finger broke through the work-thinned leather at the tip of the glove as he pulled it on. This was turning out to be a grand day. He could only imagine what delights the north pasture held for him. And, of course, the duct tape was not in the junk drawer where it belonged. His exposed fingertip was simply going to have to take its chances.
Zach tucked his cell phone into his pocket and headed out the door where he could see his three daughters walking up the drive to his sister-in-law, Beth Ann's, trailer. Beth Ann worked at the school as an instructional aid and gave the girls a ride every morning after Zach had fed them breakfast and helped gather schoolwork, lunches and other essentials before nudging them out the door. Beth Ann was a stickler for promptness. If the girls were late, they walked the half mile to school. Simple as that.
He stopped and watched for a moment, wondering why his youngest daughter, Lizzie, was wearing his oldest daughter, Darcy's, old blue coat instead of her own new red one. He made a mental note to ask about it at dinner that night. Maybe Beth Ann had washed it. She was a bit of clean freak, but he wasn't complaining. She was doing him a huge favor living on the ranch in the hired-hand trailer, handling the girl stuff that he, the oldest of four brothers, did not feel qualified to deal with.
Benny, Zach's young Border collie, was waiting for him at the old truck used for beating around the ranch. The dog jumped up on the flat bed and danced excitedly, staying just out of reach in case Zach had some kind of crazy idea about not taking him.
“Don't worry,” Zach muttered. “You're going.” The pup, who seemed to understand every word Zach said, sat his butt down and let his tongue loll out in a canine grin.
By some miracle the ancient rig started first try and Zach headed down the lane leading the north hay pasture and the pump that needed pulled for repairs. He just hoped that he could fix it himself because if not, with cattle prices the lowest he'd seen them in three years, he'd have to cut yet another corner to make ends meet. He truly hoped that wasn't the case. All he wanted was to give his girls a comfortable life, to help compensate for losing their mom to breast cancer.
It wasn't working out so well. His daughters wore whatever Beth Ann could find on sale while he duct-taped his work gloves and prayed that the pump could be jury-rigged into lasting another year so that he had the bucks to buy hay.
He needed that pasture.
Tess put on a pot of coffee, checked her email, then let the dogs back inside. Two hours of sleep were not enough, but it'd be a while before she could try again. Her adrenaline was too high, her nerves too jangled by the unexpected call.
Sad, really, that an innocuous phone call from a neighbor could ruin a day.
Tess fed the dogs, dumping copious amounts of the ultra-healthy—and therefore ultra-expensive—food the trainer had insisted on into two large stainless steel bowls. Mac dove in. Blossom hung back and waited for him to finish, even though she had her own dish.
“You're setting a bad precedent,” Tess muttered to the dog as she went back into the bedroom to change into her work clothes, which were actually new, since she no longer fit into her old clothes.
The jeans she put on were just jeans, bought for a reasonable price online and delivered by mail. No fashionable fading, studs or strategically placed frayed areas. The t-shirt was equally plain. Long-sleeved, black and boxy with a crew neck. One hundred percent cotton without a hint of spandex. It hung loosely from her shoulders, even though she'd now gained fifteen pounds and was curvier than she'd been in her entire life. The curves were part of her disguise, lame as it was, since there was no way she could disguise the scars across the left side of her face.
Her grandmother's ex-lawyer and Tess's savior, William, had suggested gaining weight in addition to dying her flame red hair dark brown and buying glasses she didn't need. She'd told William that the last thing she felt like doing was eating. Hell—for the first week after the attack, she couldn't eat, but instead sipped tiny meals through a straw. And even if she did gain weight, she'd pointed out bitterly, it wasn't like she could hide the scars.
No, William had agreed in his understated way, but skinny people stood out almost as much as redheads and after the attack she'd become alarmingly gaunt. He was too polite to say skeletal.
So during the six weeks she'd hidden out at William's San Jose home after the attack, Tess focused on gaining weight—no easy task for a model who'd spent the past decade eating the bare minimum and feeling guilty about even that small amount. Depression and fear coupled with healing scar tissue hadn't made eating any easier, but Tess persevered. Pasta, milkshakes, ice cream. Formerly forbidden foods were now her allies and she choked them down, wishing she could enjoy finally being able to eat whatever she wanted.
By the time the LLC had been formed and William had helped her lease and furnish this place in the Nevada outback—a place where Eddie would stand out like a sore thumb—Tess had, for the most part, outgrown her clothes. She'd celebrated with an online shopping spree, not caring at all if the clothing fit—which it didn't. Not in her experience anyway.
The tops didn't cling to her upper body, the jeans didn't hug her legs. Everything was loose and comfortable—and made her feel invisible—or as invisible as a person could be with a ruined face.
When Tess came back into the kitchen, the over-sized stovetop espresso maker began to gurgle and the dogs instantly went to the door to wait as Tess poured the coffee into a tall travel mug and added a healthy dollop of cream. She'd fallen into a routine over the past week. Coffee—regardless of what time of day she woke up, a quick breakfast of cereal and milk followed by a protein shake, then several hours in the barn sanding on the old oak furniture she'd found there. Not that she knew anything about refinishing furniture, but she had instructions she'd printed off the internet and time on her hands.
Too much time. But dwelling on it made her feel even more like the prisoner she essentially was, which in turn made her determined to fill the hours so she wouldn't feel like a prisoner. Eddie had destroyed her looks and her livelihood, all because she wouldn't give him something she didn't have, something that probably no longer even existed. She wasn't going to let him destroy what was left of her life. She would hang on to what she had and make what she could of it. Then maybe, once the bastard was caught, she could slip back into the mainstream. Rejoin the land of the living.
But first he had to be caught.
Zach got back to the house about half an hour after the girls got home from school. He'd pulled the pump and managed to fix it with the extra parts he had in his shop and then hauled the clumsy cylinder back to the well and lowered it down the hole. It had obligingly sucked up water and spit it back out through the wheel lines in the field.
When he walked into the house, the television was on and the heat was off. The three girls were in the living room wrapped in the afghans Karen had crocheted for each of them during her illness. Emma and Lizzie were watching TV, Darcy was doing her homework at the big oak desk he'd inherited from his grandpa, the dark blue crocheted blanket draped over her shoulders. The house felt like a tomb.
“Darcy, you need to remember to turn on the heat.” Zach pulled off his gloves and dropped them in the square willow basket next to the door that Lizzie called the mitten box. “I can almost see my breath.”
Darcy looked at him from over the top of her glasses. “The furnace is dead and you won't let me build a fire.”
Damn. He crossed the room to check the thermostat. Dead as a doornail. “You can build all the fires you want while I'm here,” Zach said as he headed for the basement door
“That doesn't do us much good when you're not here,” Darcy said.
“I guess that's what afghans are for.” Zach snapped on the hanging light before going down the wooden steps to battle the furnace. One of his wife's cardinal rules had been no fires, no sharp things without an adult in the house. Darcy had been nine when Karen died—old enough to use sharp things, but she hadn't. As far as he knew she still abided by the rule three years later.
He spent as much time working on the furnace as he did on the tractors and fully expected another major fight, but for once it turned out to be an easy fix. He replaced the fuse, then hit the reset button and the beast roared to life. That was two relatively easy fixes in one day. But they didn't balance out losing his grazing.
“Way to go, Daddy,” Lizzie said as he came up the stairs. She was still wearing Darcy's coat which went past her knees. Zach smiled at his youngest daughter, the one with Karen's fair coloring and strawberry blond hair.
“Thanks, kiddo.” He knelt down in front of her, placed a big hand on each of her small shoulders and gave her an exaggerated once over. “Where's your coat, Lizzie?”
The six-year-old shifted her mouth sideways. Not a good sign
“I put it somewhere. I guess.” She couldn't quite meet his eyes.
“Any idea where?”
She shook her head. Zach glanced at Darcy, who was watching the action from his desk. She instantly went back to her math. Zach sensed conspiracy.
“I want you to find it.”
“What if I can't?” Lizzie asked as she twisted a button on Darcy's coat.
Excellent question. “We'll worry about that later. Right now I want you to find your coat.”
Lizzie exhaled in a long suffering way and walked out of the room, feet dragging.
“Where's Lizzie's coat?” he asked Darcy. She met his eyes in her direct way. “Honestly, Dad, I have no idea where it is.”
“She hid it,” Emma said from behind him. “I don't know where.”
“She doesn't like it. She wanted a pink coat. Tia,” aka Beth Ann, “got her the red one because it was a better price.” Emma gave a philosophical shrug and then dismissively flipped one of her light brown braids over her shoulder. “You know how she hates red.”
Actually he didn't, which kind of bothered him. It was common knowledge that Lizzie hated red?
Zach rubbed the back of his neck. “Thanks.”
“What're you going to do?” Emma asked.
Consult with Beth Ann, no doubt. A new coat simply wasn't in the cards until he shipped another lot of cattle and he was trying to hold off on that until the prices jumped. He was damned tired of giving away his beef for break even prices. Last time he sold prematurely, he'd lost money, but he'd needed the cash and had taken the financial beating.
And he'd probably have to do it again before he had all the doctors and labs and hospitals—both local and the one in Reno—paid off.
Lizzie was going to wear her coat once they found it.
As he walked down the hall to the kitchen where dinner was simmering in a slow cooker he wondered if a red coat could be dyed a less hated color. Purple maybe?
He'd just taken the top off the Crockpot when the kitchen door opened and his sister-in-law came in carrying a laptop case. “Hey, Beth Ann.”
“Zach.” She set the computer on the counter then pushed the dark hair back from the side of her face. She looked a lot like her sister, except that Karen had been fair while Beth Ann was a deep brunette.
“What's that for?
“Darcy wants to borrow it.”
“You don't need it for studying?” Beth Ann was taking online courses, trying to complete an education degree—or most of it anyway. By the time she got to the point that she would have to take regular classes, Darcy would be traveling to the high school in town, forty miles away, where the community college was located. The two of them could drive together which would solve another problem—buying a car for Darcy.
“I can use the computer at school tonight and Darcy can take this up to her room and work in peace.” Beth Ann came to stand beside him as he added salt to the stew. “Any luck with the pastures?
“Struck out.” He put the salt down and pulled the pepper out of the spice drawer, hoping Emma didn't walk in. She ate more pepper than she realized.
“Really?” Beth Ann asked. “What's she going to use them for?”
“We never got that far in the conversation.” Beth Ann cocked her head and Zach added, “The new neighbor wasn't all that friendly. Hung up on me.”
“Really?” She looked shocked.
“Yep.” The conversation had been over for all intents and purposes, but around here, people said goodbye before they hung up the phone.
Beth Ann took the pepper shaker from Zach when he was finished and dropped it back in the drawer while he stirred the stew. “Susan said one side of her face was bandaged when she came in to rent the post office box.”
“I heard.” Pretty much everyone had heard. Susan wasn't exactly shy about sharing what she knew.
Beth Ann shrugged. “Maybe she just needs some time to settle in. Get used to us here.”
“Maybe.” Zach wasn't holding his breath. He opened the cupboard and pulled out five bowls.
“Nothing for me,” Beth Ann said. “I just came to drop off the laptop and see if you needed anything from town tomorrow.”
No, because he'd have to pay for it and he was saving his money for important stuff like hospital bills and equipment repairs. “I can't think of anything.” He put the extra bowl back in the cupboard. “Did you know that Lizzie hates red?”
Beth Ann snorted. “I got that feeling when she pouted all the way home after I bought her a red coat.”
“She, uh, lost the red coat.”
“Lost it,” Beth Ann said flatly. “I think Miss Lizzie and I will have a talk.”
“I already had one.”
“I'll add my voice to yours.”
He shook his head. “I want to give Lizzie a shot at doing the right thing on her own.”
“Fine.” Beth Ann pushed off from the doorframe and headed down the hall to living room. “I'll just see how the homework is going before I head on back to school.”
Zach counted spoons out of the utensil drawer. His sister-in-law had been a godsend during Karen's illness and for the three years since she'd died. And despite the fact that Beth Ann was practically the antithesis of her sister in temperament, she was devoted to raising her nieces the way Karen would have wanted them raised—to the point that there were times when Zach wondered if he was taking advantage, keeping her from having a life of her own. Whenever he broached the subject, though, Beth Ann brushed him off and Zach let the matter drop.
It was a comfortable arrangement—for him anyway—and it worked.
Beth Ann came back into the kitchen with Emma behind her explaining why she had yet to start on her social studies report. The beauty of Beth Ann working at the school was that she knew everything that went on in her nieces' academic lives—much to their annoyance.
“Are you sure you don't want some stew?” Zach asked as he set the bowls on the table. On the nights they used the slow cooker, it was every man for himself and then the girls cleaned up while he went into his office and ruined his night calculating finances.
Again Beth Ann shook her head.
“You need to eat, Tia,” Emma said, echoing the words Beth Ann so often said when vegetables played a starring role in dinner.
“I'll eat. I do have food at my own place. By the way, you'll need to find your own way home from school tomorrow.” Beth Ann looked over at Zach. “I have language proficiency training in town for the next three afternoons. I leave as soon as school lets out.”
“We can walk home,” Emma said.
“Yes, but can Lizzie?” Beth Ann asked dryly. Lizzie hated walking anywhere.
“We can take our bikes,” Emma said brightly.
“Where?” Darcy asked as she came into the room.
“Tia can't bring us home tomorrow because she has a meeting in town,” Emma said.
“I can take you to school and then you can walk home or your dad can pick you up,” Beth Ann said.
“We'll ride our bikes,” Darcy said with an air of finality. She took her position as the oldest seriously and expected to have the last word on all matters. She was a bit like Beth Ann in that regard.
“Lizzie can't ride a bike in your old coat,” Zach pointed out. It wasn't difficult to imagine the outcome of a Lizzie/giant coat/bicycle spoke/gravel combination.
Emma and Darcy exchanged looks. “She'll find her coat,” Darcy said. Emma nodded.
The two girls left the kitchen and Beth Ann smiled slightly. “Problem solved.”
“I just hope no one cries.”
“Amen to that.” Beth Ann smiled a little, then headed for the door. Her hand was on the door knob when she stopped and said, “You okay?”
Zach shrugged, hating that she could read him—but then she'd seen him in his most desperate and unguarded moments. “I'm concerned about losing the pastures.” Understatement of the year.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Zach opened the fridge and pulled out half a gallon of milk, then met Beth Ann's eyes over the door. “I guess that I'm going to give it another shot.”
Only this time he was going in person.