A dark forest surrounded her. The noises ricocheting through the woods roared in her ears. With every rustle, a tiny shudder rippled through her. Her heart began to race.
"I see you," came the singsong voice of the man she was hiding from.
She took off running in a zigzag pattern between the twisted trees, their branches grabbing at her clothes, impeding her progress. Her chest shook with each heartbeat, and a hard, choking lump formed in her throat.
The distinct sound of gunfire rang out, and a chill prickled the hair on the back of her neck. The next shot stung her upper arm like an angry bee. She was sick with despair, sure the next shot would drop her dead in her tracks. Instead, fate reached out with ensnaring fingers and pulled her down to the forest floor as the next shot buzzed over her head.
But fate wasn't kind, after all. In the next moment the man's hand closed over her arm and pulled her up. The blow to her face was swift, and her head reeled from it. A nauseating lurch of panic, along with the wave of physical pain, accompanied the taste of blood in her mouth. The man shoved her hard. She grabbed at his shirt, grasping at anything to keep from falling. The star-shaped, metallic badge ripped off in her hand, its sharp edges digging into her palm. She sobbed at the irony. He was supposed to protect. Instead, he flung her to the ground. She fell awkwardly, the brunt of the fall taken on her right hip and shoulder. A cloud of dirt flew in her face, and she wrinkled up her nose to keep from choking.
Before she could recover, the man yanked her up to her knees by her hair. Blood poured from her hand as she tightened her hold on the badge. Cold steel clicked, then the butt of the gun barrel pressed against her temple. Darkness engulfed her, crept in and ravished her with fear.
"If I can't have you, no one will," he whispered against her ear. "Say goodbye."
Whitney woke with a gasp and bolted to a sitting position. Panic-stricken, she glanced around the room. Seconds passed without a breath before she realized she wasn't in any danger.
It was only a dream, another nightmare. She took a deep breath, her shoulders slumping in relief. She closed her eyes, placed a hand over her heart, and concentrated on slowing its painful, rapid beating.
"Damn you, Lloyd Benson," she whispered hoarsely as she slowly curled back up on her side, pulling the blanket more tightly around her.
She lay shaking, her eyes wide open, watching the shadows dance on the closet door. Even awake, every noise appeared to be magnified. The thump of her heartbeat echoed loudly in her ears and off the walls. She tried to ignore the steady tick of the alarm clock, but a minute later she threw back the covers and sat up.
She slipped into her warm, knitted slippers, wrapped an afghan around her shoulders, and padded over to the window where she twisted the mini-blind cord just enough to see out.
She wasn't the only one up. Some of the houses that lined the other side of the street showed signs of life, a window here and there illuminated with light.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the beam of a headlight as it crested the hill and started its slow descent into the neighborhood. Instant suspicion knotted her stomach. As the car passed by the house, she ducked away from the window, terror invading her, piercing her chest like a cold blade.
She hated herself for her fear, for allowing Lloyd Benson to strip her of her confidence.
But the danger was real. It had been there from the first time they'd met nine months ago. The apprehension had been thick as syrup when he'd introduced himself and insisted on helping her move into her apartment. She'd become increasingly uncomfortable when he began following her, seeming to run into her everywhere. She'd moved twice and it didn't help. It only fueled his determination. And when he began sending her notes and presents, she'd taken quick and immediate legal action.
But that had been nine months ago. Nine months in and out of the courts and all she got was a piece of paper to separate her and Lloyd Benson. Not much of a shield against a man who thought his job as a department store security guard was equal to that of a police officer. Who in the world had given Lloyd Benson the right to carry a gun?
Pushing herself away from the wall, she paced back and forth. It was nearly midnight. Work, rather than sleep, seemed the only option. She'd get the rest she needed tomorrow, in the middle of the day, when nightmares didn't plague her.
Dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt, she went into the kitchen and heated some water for tea. She carried the soothing brew into the room where she'd set up her computer, then jumped as the shrill ring of the phone shattered the quiet of the house.
Hot liquid sloshed over her hand. Thankfully, it was not hot enough to scald. A familiar fear knotted her stomach and uneasiness crept up her spine. She set down the cup and stood, tension mounting in her shoulders as she waited for the inevitable.
One ring, two rings, three rings, four rings.
The recorder switched on.
She shuddered at the sound of his voice.
"Hello, sweetheart. My birthday is Friday. Quit acting like a child. Come help me celebrate. I won't take no for an answer. It's really hard to keep this relationship going when you refuse to see me. I love you and I know you'll love me, too, if you just give me a chance. Isn't it about time you gave in a little? I know you're upset that the restraining order wasn't extended today, so let me make it up to you. I'll pick you up about seven o'clock. Friday, okay?Just one date. That's all I'm asking for. One date. I won't accept defeat until you've gone out with me and you've had a chance to see my good side. Friday, seven. Sweet dreams."
A chill spread up her arms and through her chest. She collapsed into her chair, pulled her knees up to her chest for warmth, and pressed her face against her legs.
Her heart pounded. Her mind raced. All her plans for slipping away in two weeks had to now be done in four days. Her stomach clenched. Despite the threats of what he'd do if she ever tried to leave, of what he'd do if she moved one more time and he found her, there was no alternative. She wouldn't be here Friday.
Or any other Friday.
Whitney directed her gaze out the window of the bus to catch her first glimpse of Eden, Montana. Extremely alien. Small, very small. She tried to smile, but anxiety seized her lips and kept them from lifting at the corners. Her heart beat with nervous apprehension, with the trepidation that accompanied that first step into the unknown.A familiar ache began in the pit of her stomach; the same feeling she'd gotten every time she'd been taken from one foster home to another. Seven homes in all.
When the bus came to a stop, she exhaled a long, deep breath. California and everything that went with it was a thing of the past. She'd even sold her car, fearing that Lloyd Benson could have a private detective find her. He'd followed her enough that she was certain he had her license number memorized. She'd also thought it would be safer taking a bus rather than a plane. By taking a bus, she'd only had to buy a ticket, and that she did with cash. She'd even worn a disguise, just in case Lloyd had a picture of her. She'd taken every precaution she could think of to slip away and not be found, not be traced. She left no trail. Her future lay ahead of her now. She just had to step off this bus and meet it.
Not more than a handful of people got off at the station. She retrieved her five suitcases and rented a car. Now, as she moved out of the station, she was taken aback by the big, puffy, white clouds scattered about against a dark blue sky. Beautiful, and very different from the haze she was accustomed to that hung low in the city, obscuring most everything from her view.
Hills, dotted with houses, loomed in front of her.Snow-covered mountains rose majestically in the distance. A little bit of joy squeezed in beside the trepidation.
Perhaps if her phone call to Mr. Smythe, Attorney at Law, had been more positive, she wouldn't have a knot in her stomach at all. But it hadn't. The call had been brief and disturbing, leaving her full of doubt. He had discouraged her from coming. The house she'd inherited was run-down, barely habitable. An offer had been made on the property and he would gladly send her a check. She need not come at all.
But she was here now. As she maneuvered the rental car through the downtown area, she pondered on the attorney's insistence that selling the house would be for the best. How would he know what was best for her?She needed this house. She needed the safe haven it offered.
After some confusion with a few one-way streets, she pulled into a parking space in front of the law office of Dixon Smythe.
"May I help you?" the receptionist asked the second she opened the door.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Smythe."
"You must be Miss Cooper. I'll see if he's ready for you." The woman smiled up at her and lifted the phone receiver on her desk. "Miss Cooper is here to see you. Yes, sir." She returned the phone to its cradle and looked at Whitney. "Go on in."
"Thank you." Whitney opened one of the double wooden doors the receptionist had indicated.
"Miss Cooper." A silver-haired man moved to greet her, extending his hand, and giving her a warm broad smile. "I'm Dixon Smythe. I've invited..."
"Sorry I'm late, Dix."
Enticed by a rich, mellow baritone, Whitney turned her head toward the doorway. There stood a tall, lean man, displaying nothing but pure male muscle. A wheat-colored Stetson covered a head of dark hair and sat low on his forehead. A quiver of awareness set her pulse fluttering as her gaze locked with blue eyes the color of cobalt. For one immeasurable moment, she was powerless to look away.
"Miss Cooper, I'd like you to meet Jared Martin," Mr. Smythe said, introducing the other man. "As I started to tell you, I hope you don't mind me asking Mr. Martin here, but he has an interest in the house and property.Perhaps we can work something out."
She held out her hand.
Jared swept his hat from his head and took her hand. His blue gaze traveled from her face, then over her figure with practiced ease. It was a bold appraisal, setting her skin aflame. Finally, he let go of her hand.
"Ms. Cooper," he said with a slight nod.
His voice held a definite strain. A niggling of apprehension surfaced. He's wound tighter than a drum.
"Sit down, sit down," Mr. Smythe said.
She flicked her glance from Mr. Martin and sat down, giving the attorney her full attention.
"As you know from the letter I sent you, it is the will of William Cooper that you take possession of his house and the surrounding five acres. The property in question is attached to Mr. Martin's ranch. At one time, the property belonged to the Martin family, and Jared has made a generous offer for it."
"I know." Whitney frowned. "You already told me that. And I told you I have no intention of selling. As a matter of fact, I've had another offer..."
"I knew it!"
Whitney flinched. She glanced at Jared Martin. The man made no pretense of disguising his animosity as his gaze bored into hers. Her fingers gripped her purse.
"Was this other offer from Stan Malkin?" Mr. Smythe asked.
Whitney looked away from Jared's clenched hands and tried to ignore the frantic beat his right foot made against the carpet.
"Yes, but I told him the same thing I'm telling you.I'm not interested in selling."
The lawyer glanced at Jared, clearly gauging his reaction. "Miss Cooper, I assure you that the offer Jared has made is more than the house is worth. Are you sure we can't convince you to accept his offer?"
"I'm sorry, but, as I've told you several times already, I don't have any plans to sell right now. I haven't even seen the property."
Jared Martin stood. "I won't waste any more of your time," he said to Mr. Smythe between tight lips.
A hand went up stopping whatever the older man was going to say.
"I'll talk to you later," Jared said. He glanced briefly at her, and his eyes turned cold. "Ms. Cooper."
Anger bubbled up inside her. Confusion replaced it as a whiff of Jared's aftershave hit her. He walked out the door, shoulders straight and taut. Stupid jerk. She shook her head, surprised that her thoughts had taken off in another direction. A direction she didn't normally get drawn into, especially since the intrusion of Lloyd Benson.
"I'm sorry, Miss Cooper," Mr. Smythe said. "If I had known Jared would be so...so..."
"I'm sorry, too," she said, saving Mr. Smythe from finding a word to amply describe Jared Martin's animosity.
"At any rate, Jared Martin is one of the finest men I know. He's not usually so abrupt. He's concerned about the property. Mr. Malkin and Jared have had a few run-ins of lately. Mr. Malkin is a land developer who has bought up a number of ranches in the area and turned them into residential neighborhoods and commercial property. Jared has been a front-runner in keeping Mr. Malkin from expanding too much too fast.Mr. Malkin would love to acquire a piece of the Martin ranch. It would be a notch in his belt, so to speak."
"Well, that does bring the situation to light.I really don't have any intention of selling and I promise if I change my mind in the future, I'll let Mr. Martin know. Only Mr. Martin," she stressed.
"Thank you." Mr. Smythe smiled. "Now, let me read you your father's will."
"Mr. Cooper wasn't my father," she piped up.
For a second, the lawyer was speechless."Oh, I'm sorry. I just assumed, since you have the same last name. Is he your uncle then?"
Now it was her turn to smile. "We're not related at all. I met Mr. Cooper five years ago, very briefly. He was in California at a horse auction when he suffered a heart attack. I gave him CPR and saved his life. I visited him maybe three or four times in the hospital. That was the last contact I'd had with him. We did joke about how we had the same last name and similar backgrounds. He said he didn't have any family. I don't either. So I know by accepting his generosity that I'm not depriving someone else of their inheritance."
"I had no idea. William never mentioned the incident." He exhaled a deep breath. "At any rate, the house is in pretty bad shape. William hadn't lived in it the last nine months. Even before that he'd let things go. Are you absolutely sure you won't reconsider Mr. Martin's offer?"
"I'm sure," she said.
"Then let's just get these papers signed and you can be on your way."
She emerged from the office, the key to her house warming the palm of her hand. She smiled, realizing the distance she was putting between her and Lloyd Benson. And Rodney, she thought. Rodney, who always ran to her when he was in trouble, which seemed to be more and more frequently, wouldn't be bothering her anymore.Ever since they were put in the same foster home, he'd relied on her. It had continued even as adults. She'd paid for his drug rehab twice, tried to get him into a trade school, and had even let him live with her for two months - a disastrous two months. She couldn't take care of him anymore, not when she was struggling just to take care of herself at the moment.
But that was about to all change. She squeezed the key in her hand. This was her new beginning, the first day of the rest of her life.
When she stepped out of the building, her thoughts came to an abrupt end. She shouldn't have been surprised to find Jared Martin waiting for her.
But she was.
Slipping his hands into his pockets, he stared at her with a coldness that rattled her.
"Are you holding out for more money?" he demanded.
"Excuse me?" Uneasiness swept over her. Not another Lloyd Benson. No, actually, he wasn't like Lloyd Benson at all. Jared Martin probably disliked her as much as Lloyd Benson claimed to love her.Frustration and anger began to grow inside her as her chest constricted. There was something disturbing about Jared Martin. So disturbing, her pulse raced. Maybe he wasn't like Lloyd Benson, but he could be as dangerous.
He was overbearing, domineering, and judgmental. She could think of a few more names to describe his behavior. The bottom line was this man really got her dander up. Not only that, she was afraid that he wouldn't take no for an answer either.There was one trait he shared with Lloyd Benson, after all.
"I can't offer you as much as Mr. Malkin can, but my offer is more than fair."
"Mr. Martin, I promise, if I had any intention of selling, you'd be the only one I'd talk to."
"Sometimes money talks louder than words," he said.
She gave him a quick, hard glare."You've got nothing to worry about, Mr. Martin. I'm not planning on selling this place to you or anyone else. Now, if you'll excuse me."
She attempted to walk away but Jared stretched out an arm and placed it on the building, blocking her. "Excuse me," she said, anxiety almost overwhelming her. She backed against the cold brick.
He leaned toward her. "You're not wanted here." His voice was a harsh whisper, his face taut with contempt.
A sharp pain twisted through her. She fought the dreadful panic in her chest, fought to breathe. Her gaze went down to his boots. Don't show him you're afraid of him, she told herself. She took several steady breaths before she raised her head and spoke. "That's okay, Mr. Martin, because nothing is going to change my mind. It won't be the first time I haven't been wanted." She lifted her chin slightly, not about to let him bully her. "I want this house very much. I'm staying. I'm sorry if that bothers you. I'll do my best to stay out of your way."
To her own dismay, her voice sounded husky and shaky, revealing that what he'd said had struck a chord in her, more than she cared to admit.
"We'll see how long you last. Believe me, the house isn't habitable. It needs a lot of work. A lot of work. Take the money," he said.
"No, thank you. Can I go now?"
He stared at her coldly a moment. "Why is it that vultures only come around when someone dies?"
Her slap came quick and hard, its force leaving a red impression on his face, and a look of shock that mirrored her own. He seized her, his strong fingers clamping around her arms.
She gasped. Her green eyes widened with shock. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
He glared at her, his eyes flaming with hostility.
Frantically, she tried to pull away from his hold."Please let me go," she cried.
He did, stepping back and putting distance between them. "Hit a little too close to the truth?" he asked.
Tears welled in her eyes. "Before you go around calling people vultures, you'd better know what you're talking about, Mr. Martin." To her dismay, her voice shook uncontrollably.
"Your father spent the last few months of his life in a rest home, Ms. Cooper. Alone. No loving daughter to console him. You didn't care to visit while he was alive, but you sure came running when he died."
"Like I said, Mr. Martin, know what you're talking about before you run off at the mouth with a bunch of utter nonsense."She shook her head in disbelief."My father died when I was ten years old, along with my mother and brother, in a car accident. You know what else? You're a real bastard."
She stepped around him and walked away, relieved when he didn't try to stop her.
Jared's fingers curled into fists. God, a minute ago, when she'd slapped him, he had the urge to hit her back, but he hadn't. He'd never hit a woman before and he wasn't about to start now. He stood there a moment, fighting his own demons.
Then, something awakened in his mind.
An old feeling crept up from the depths of his being. Attraction.No. It couldn't be that. A fevered tension bolted through him.
Damn! That couldn't be it. He couldn't possibly be attracted to a heartless witch. Not someone who was cool and unfeeling.
Jared frowned. What had she said? Her parents and brother died ten years ago in a car accident? Was it possible he was wrong about Whitney Cooper? He was so sure this beautiful woman--and he had to admit she was beautiful--had abandoned her father years ago. It had irritated him when he'd found out that William Cooper had left everything to who he'd presumed was his daughter. He had no tolerance for abandonment. His own mother had walked out on her family, leaving four young children confused and heartbroken. He'd really never even considered, until this moment, that maybe William had walked out and never looked back. But if Whitney wasn't his daughter, then what was she to him? A niece?
Jared took off his Stetson, ran a hand through his hair, and plopped the hat back on his head. He took a deep breath and returned to the building to talk with Dixon Smythe.
Whitney barely made it into the motel room before a stream of tears tumbled down her face. She tried to hold them back. Jared Martin had no right to treat her that way. How dare he judge her?
She had learned over the years to ignore whatever people thought of her, hadn't she? So, why did this man's animosity disturb her?
She spotted the key on the nightstand, took it and squeezed it tightly. Jared Martin wasn't going to scare her away. But she'd wait until tomorrow to drive out to the house. She'd decided that only when she'd passed by the motel. She wasn't up to another confrontation.She'd turned around and gotten a room. Now, she stripped off her clothes and headed for the shower. Under a stream of hot water, she willed the drops to wash away all the loneliness she had bottled up inside her, along with the tears streaming down her face. Wash everything away and let a fresh new life emerge.
But it didn't happen.
The water turned cold. She turned off the tap, wrapped a towel around her body and another around her hair, walked on shaky legs to the bed and collapsed in another fit of tears. They continued until she had cried herself into a state of exhaustion. When there was no more emotion, she rolled over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. Now she felt better. Exhausted, numb, but better. She couldn't remember ever crying like that.
Whitney longed for a sense of belonging. She had hoped it would be here, but Jared Martin had shaken her confidence.
Jared Martin be damned!
She had lost a loving family, endured years of indifference and anxiety. The end result had made her a loner, afraid of commitment, uncomfortable with touching, hugging, and intimacy. All her passion had gone into her career as a school psychologist and her artwork.
It was safer that way.
It was predictable.
It passed the time.
She sat up on the bed and glanced into the mirror directly across from her. She clenched her teeth. What a ghastly sight she made. At twenty-eight years old, with an education and a God-given talent for illustration, she should be happy.
But she wasn't. And it was about time that changed. She sniffled.
"Jared Martin, here I come," she whispered to the mirror.
That made her smile. A weak smile, but a smile just the same.
She took off the towels, put on an oversized T-shirt, and combed her hair. Her eyes felt gritty. She lay on the bed, closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep, wet hair and all.
Jared sat nursing his second beer. Beer--it wasn't nearly strong enough to dull his senses. It didn't take away any of the pain. And it only made the frustration more intense. He took a long drink, set down the bottle, and squeezed the neck in frustration.
Searching his memory, he tried to remember if anyone had ever called him a bastard before. To his knowledge, no. She was the first one, the only one. Damn!
"So, what's she look like?" Rob slipped into an empty seat at the kitchen table across from Jared.
"Come on, big brother," Rob chuckled."Will's daughter. What does she look like?"
"She's not Will's daughter."
"No. Not his daughter, not his niece. She's no relation at all."
"According to Dixon, she performed CPR on Will five years ago. She saved his life. That she has the same last name is just a coincidence."
"CPR? What for?" Rob asked.
"Apparently Will had a heart attack."
"And he never told us?"
Jared shook his head. "No. But that's just like Will. He never did share his life, past or present, with us."
Rob expelled a breath. "So, what does she look like?" he asked for the third time.
Jared frowned. "Who?"
"I didn't get that close of a look," he lied.
He remembered exactly what she looked like. She was petite in stature, not more than five foot four, but curved in all the right areas. Her hair was the color of spun honey, cut just above the shoulders. She had a stubborn chin, a generous, full mouth. But it was her eyes he remembered most. They were green, emerald green, sizzling with anger.
Something stirred inside him. He felt it then and he felt it now.
He squirmed in his seat. He'd been sorely tempted to stop her quivering with a kiss. He took another deep gulp of his beer. Was her hair as soft as her lips?Immediately, he stopped his train of thoughts, reminding himself exactly why he was still unattached. He didn't trust women. For the last four years he hadn't given any female a second thought. Not since Rachel had deceived him. So why should Whitney Cooper be any different? Was it because of the guilt he felt for the way he'd treated her? After all, he did owe her an apology.
"Earth to Jared."
Jared glanced at his younger brother.
"I think you're holding back. I guess I'm just going to have to find out for myself.When is she coming out to the house?"
His body went rigid. "The last thing you need in your life right now is another woman, so don't get any ideas."
Rob gave a little snort of laughter. "I already have my sights set on someone.I'm divorced, not dead. Unlike you, I still want to find a woman to spend the rest of my life with. I guess in our case, practice makes perfect."
"I don't have time for a woman. I've got Katelyn to rear."
"Have you ever thought that maybe Katelyn needs a woman around?"
"What's wrong with Aunt Vivian and Carly?"
"Hell, Jared, you haven't been involved with anyone since Rachel. Don't you realize that there are women lined up just itching for your attention? All you have to do is reach out to one of them."
"I don't want just any woman."
Rob smiled. "God, I think you're human after all."
Jared lifted the bottle to his lips, downing the rest of the liquid, needing it to anesthetize him as a shadow of pain drifted over his mind.
"Maybe the right woman hasn't come along yet," he said quietly, his thoughts drifting to Whitney Cooper.
Rob lifted his bottle. "Here, here."