Elyse McCord guided her Jeep down the gravel road for another slow pass. The white frame house on the corner lot hid its secrets well. Just like the guy at the café said, the tall privacy fence didn’t allow even a peek of the backyard. And driving back and forth all day wasn’t going to change that.
With no hard evidence, she was going to have to take his word about the starving dog in the backyard that could only be seen from his woods. She shuddered. And about the big, mean-looking guy who lived in the house, rumored to be fresh out of prison.
She turned down the side road and followed the privacy fence until it disappeared into the brushy thicket. The dark brushy thicket. Maybe she should just go home and call someone. Her hand hesitated on the gear shift knob. What if it was a false alarm? She’d look like an idiot. Or what if it was true and the dog couldn’t wait that long?
Her new Jeep bounced as she guided it onto the shoulder of the road and parked. That was her idea of living dangerously—buying a Jeep and not gripping the steering wheel with two white-knuckled hands whenever she hit a bump. This crazy mission she’d undertaken on the spur of the moment was just that. Crazy and out of character. Except that there was a dog depending on her. Her cell phone was fully charged and in her pocket. Once she saw the dog, she’d call the sheriff. She snagged a dog food pouch and water bottle from the console and climbed down.
In the woods, her heart pounded out a rhythm with her feet as she eased between the trees. She counted the dogwoods and maples as she went, their already changed leaves making them bright red beacons among the autumn mix of color. “One, two, three,” she whispered, moving forward on trembling legs. It was a trick she’d learned before she even learned to read. . .using mundane tasks, such as counting or sorting things by colors to take her mind off her fears.
She stepped out from the shadow of a giant cedar tree and tiptoed across the thick bed of brown needles. Ahead, battered, sagging chain link, about three feet tall, marked the beginning of a backyard. Another step forward. A limb snapped beneath her foot. She stopped, letting the cedar scent calm her, fighting the need to bolt back through the woods to the safety of her Jeep.
Then she saw the dog. Yellow lab from the look of him. Dust caked his ridged sides, each rib distinctly visible. He tucked his tail and watched her, big soulful eyes fearful as though begging her to be kind.
In a flash of emotion almost foreign to her, Elyse wanted to hit something hard with her fist. What kind of monster would treat a dog this way? “Hey, boy,” she said softly as she walked up to the fence.
His tail relaxed and he gave a feeble wag.
She pulled the water bottle from her pocket and poured it through the wire into a dusty bowl.
The dog lapped at the stream, not letting it hit the bowl first.
Hot tears pricked against Elyse’s eyelids. If she hadn’t overheard the hunters talking at the café. . . If she hadn’t come out here today. . . She shook her head, blinking hard. She’d learned a long time ago not to live in “what if” land.
The dog had stopped drinking and was regarding her curiously, one dusty ear raised. His collar hung loosely around his neck. A heart-shaped name tag dangled from it.
She bent down to read it. Pal. At some point, someone had cared about this dog. “Hey, Pal. I brought you some food.” She forced a smile. Better to stay alert than to give into emotion. Keeping a wary eye on the house, she knelt down near a spot where the ground dipped and slid the open pouch of dog food under the fence. “I wish I could have mixed you up some of my special recipe, but it was short notice.”
Her dogs always smelled their food before they ate it. But Pal gulped this down, barely chewing.
While he ate, Elyse considered the house. One faded green shutter was missing. The other hung askew into a window box full of dead, brown flowers, giving the impression of a distorted wink. Was someone watching her now? She squinted at the windows. The blinds were down. And even though the back screen door gaped open, a wooden door behind it appeared to be solidly closed. Jagged glass framed a broken basement window. No movement anywhere.
Relief pushed air into her lungs and she slowly exhaled. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath. She squeezed two fingers through the nearest diamond-shaped opening in the chain link and scratched the dog’s head. “I’m going to call someone and get you help,” she whispered.
He cowered away from her.
“Don’t be afraid. We’ll get you out of here.”
His tail wagged as if he understood. He stepped closer to her again, allowing her to scratch his head. Then he moved a few feet away and watched her.
Empathy welled up inside her. He wanted to trust her, but he wasn’t sure if he could. She remembered that day sixteen years ago when Jonathan and Lynda McCord had reached out to her. She’d been afraid to believe that they would really love her. “It’s hard to let go of the fear, isn’t it, Pal?”
He smiled at her. She’d taken a lot of teasing in her life for thinking dogs could smile. But he did smile. And his smile hooked her.
“I’m going to get help,” she said softly. “Right now.” She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and slid it open.
Without warning, the dog barked, took a step back and bared his teeth. The dirty hair along his spine stood up like a porcupine’s quills. A low growl sent shivers up Elyse’s own spine and she froze.
“What’s wro—” A hard tug on her hair yanked her to her feet. “Oww!” Pain raced along her scalp. She twisted around to face her attacker and stared down the barrel of a pistol.
At the sight of the gun, her legs collapsed, but the grizzled man held her up by her hair with one meaty fist. He kept the snub-nosed pistol pointed at her with the other and gave her a shake as if she were a dog toy. “You snoopin’ around here, tryin’ to butter the dog up so he won’t growl when you break in later?”
She shook her head. The bright sunlight seemed to fade. “He. . .he. . .he was hungry.” The gun in her face was too much to bear. She almost wished she’d just pass out. But even as uncontrollable shaking worked its way through her body, her vision came back into focus. No escape.
The man’s eyes, beady and mean above a bulbous red nose, narrowed farther. “You tryin’ to tell me you’re just a good S’maritan?”
She swallowed hard, still trembling all over. If she didn’t answer him, he’d kill her. She knew it. “I just wanted”—she gulped again—“to give him some food and water.”
He let out an obscenity of disbelief.
She gagged at the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. Think, she commanded herself. Think. Don’t give into the fear. She needed to calm down and assess the situation. Her attacker was obviously mentally unbalanced and drunk as well. Her only hope was to be rescued. Her phone, still clutched in her hand, caught her eye.
“Seriously.” She winced at her fearful voice, but she continued, “You. . .probably didn’t realize how hungry he was.” She nodded toward Pal.
He glanced instinctively at the dog.
She worked her fingers slowly, trying not to call attention to her hand. 9-1—
He snatched the phone from her and threw it on the ground. She gasped as it broke into pieces. He shoved her hard against the fence. The sagging chain link molded around her like an upright metal blanket and dug into her sides. She couldn’t hold back a groan. Behind her, Pal growled low in his throat.
“I heard what you said about gettin’ help,” the man snarled. “You’re nothing but a liar.” He waved the gun at her. “Now on your feet.”
Elyse closed her eyes. Please, Lord, help me.
“On your feet.” He grabbed her by the arm.
Pal gave three short excited barks then resumed growling, louder this time. “It’s okay, boy,” she murmured as she stumbled to a standing position. If she couldn’t make the dog calm down, the man might snap completely and kill them both. “He needed food and water.”
The man gave her another rough shove. “I’ve heard all that garbage I want to hear from my sister. ‘Feed Pal, Zeke. Make sure he has water, Zeke.’ ”
His high pitch mimic sent a fresh shiver up Elyse’s spine. Pal jumped against the sagging fence, snarling at the man, but unable to get to him.
“A bullet through his head is what he needs. And that’s what he’s gonna get.”
She glanced back at Zeke just in time to see him turn the gun toward the dog. “No!” she roared and threw herself at him.
He grabbed her by the shirt collar and shoved the gun against her throat. Madness and rage glittered in his eyes, his foul alcohol-saturated breath hot on her face. “You’re gonna pay for that.” He yanked her hair and shoved her forward again, pushing her along the chain link fence toward the privacy fence that spanned the sides of the backyard.
She’d almost forgotten what gut-wrenching fear felt like, but dizziness and nausea brought the memories rushing back. The last thing she saw as she stumbled around the corner next to the privacy fence, the gun jabbing in her back, was Pal, watching. At least she’d gotten Zeke and his gun away from the dog for now.
“I’m gonna teach you a lesson you won’t ever forget,” Zeke said, his voice slightly slurred.
“You’re not teaching her anything,” a deep voice drawled from behind the man. “Not today or any day.”
Behind her, Elyse felt Zeke swing around to face the voice. She knew she should probably run for the road, but she spun around, too, just in time to see the newcomer kick the gun from Zeke’s hand.
Zeke grabbed his hand and swore. “I oughta. . .”
The other man narrowed his eyes and shook his shaggy blond head. The instant she looked into his deep blue eyes, her panic subsided. She was safe. She silently thanked God for answering her prayer.
Her rescuer looked like a good-looking beach bum in his paint-splattered cutoff jeans and pocket t-shirt. But he stood like a martial arts expert, his hands as ready as a pair of deadly knives.
Zeke paused as if considering hand-to-hand combat. Then he fell to his knees, scrambling around for the gun.
With one muscled arm, the young Chuck Norris grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him upright. He held the wiggling man easily and reached down to pick up the gun. The weapon looked comfortable in his hand.
For the first time since his arrival, a tendril of unease curled up Elyse’s spine. “Um, thanks. . .”
The man nodded. “You’re welcome. I’m Andrew. I’d shake your hand but I’m a little busy. What’s your name?”
“Elyse.” The unease evaporated as quickly as it had come and she didn’t even stammer.
“Elyse, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?”
“I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on,” Zeke broke in, his face red and splotchy. “She’s trespassin’. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
Andrew’s presence gave Elyse courage to be angry again. “There’s a dog starving to death here and I came to feed and water it.” She glared at Zeke. “Just for the record, I was outside of your fence when you grabbed me.” And thanks to her eavesdropping this morning, she knew the woods belonged to the guy in the café.
“Besides,” Andrew said, shoving Zeke toward the front yard, “last I heard, convicted felons couldn’t own guns.”
“How’d you—” Zeke started then snapped his lips together in a grimace.
Andrew shrugged. “Small town.”
Elyse stared at him. Yes, Shady Grove was a small town. So why had she never seen either of these men until today?
Zeke slumped his shoulders.
Andrew pushed him around to the front of the house and up the wooden porch steps toward a straight-backed plastic chair. “Sit.”
Elyse walked slowly up the steps to stand beside Andrew.
Andrew pulled out his cell phone and punched in 911. “This is Andrew Stone. I interrupted a possible kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon at the corner of River Road and River Trail.” He listened intently. “No. I’ve got him here.” He held the gun steady, aimed at Zeke. “He’s not going anywhere right now.”
Zeke swore under his breath.
Andrew flipped the phone shut and glanced at Elyse. “You okay?”
Elyse nodded and considered her knight in paint-splattered denim. Was he a local? Someone she knew? His shirt and shorts weren’t the only things dotted with paint. His unruly blond curls had a few flecks of white enamel in them and his tanned face was lightly speckled too. His starburst blue eyes returned her scrutiny with an amused expression. She looked away. He wasn’t someone she was likely to have forgotten.
“That’s my sister’s gun,” Zeke said. “I’ve never seen it before in my life until I found it when I saw this nosy. . .” His face twisted into a snarl.
“Watch what you say.” The steel in Andrew’s voice left no room for argument.
Zeke blew out his breath. “Anyway, I saw this girl messin’ with our dog.” He shifted his gaze back to Andrew and gave him a slightly off-kilter smile. “For real. This is my sister’s house. That’s why I said no when you came by asking about painting it. I’m just here taking care of her while she’s sick.”
Taking care of her? Like he took care of the dog? A sudden shard of terror pierced Elyse’s heart. “Where’s your sister?”
He shifted in the chair but didn’t answer.
Andrew took a step toward him. “Answer her question, Zeke. Where’s your sister now?”
Zeke tossed his head toward the house. “She’s in bed. Not doin’ too well. I was about to call an ambulance when I got distracted by Miss Nosy here.”
Elyse took off for the front door.
“Wait.” Andrew held the gun out to her. “Take this and watch him. I’ll go in the house.”
She stopped. “You think it’s a trap?”
“You’ll have to be wondering that for the rest of your life, girl,” Zeke muttered, his earlier ingratiating manner gone in a flash. His eyes flamed with hate. “I’ll get you for this if it’s the last thing I do.”
Andrew shook his head and trained the gun back on the man. “Don’t listen to him, honey,” he said softly. “Take the gun.” He stepped back as if waiting for her to step in front of him and put her hand on the gun.
She stared at the weapon in his hand, memories making her legs go weak. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. All you have to do is shoot him if he moves.” His voice was as hard as the gun metal.
Her breath closed off and she whimpered. “I. Can’t.” She hated her weakness but she could feel her body start to shake.
“Whoa,” Andrew said softly as if she were a frightened pup. He kept the gun aimed at Zeke and squeezed her shoulder with his free hand. “It’s okay.”
They stood without speaking for a few seconds.
Finally Elyse found her voice. “I’ll go check on his sister.”
He nodded. “Holler if you need any help.”
She started for the door.
“Wait!” Andrew’s voice stopped her again. He kept his gaze and gun trained on Zeke as he stepped over to the door and pushed it open then waited. From behind him, Elyse could see a foyer, just like a million other foyers, a mirror on the wall and a small bench beneath it. She saw Andrew’s shoulders relax and he stepped back to allow her to enter.
“Thanks.” In the foyer, she stopped and wrinkled her nose. The house smelled of mildew and ruined food. “Hello?” Her voice sounded unnaturally loud. The only answer was the faint hum of the refrigerator.
Her heart slammed against her ribs, but she squared her shoulders and started down the hall. If the painter out on the porch could kick a gun out of a man’s hand and not even break a sweat, she could surely check on a sick woman without fainting.
Andrew Stone stared into the beady eyes of the man he’d been staking out for the past two weeks. He’d painted every house within a mile radius dirt cheap just to be able to keep an eye on this guy without arousing suspicion. Lie low and watch. That had been the plan. But all it had taken was a beautiful brunette on the wrong side of a gun to change his plan.
Keeping the gun steady, he pulled the gold and amethyst necklace from his pocket and inspected it one more time before holding it up in the sunlight. It looked exactly like the one Melanie had worn all the time. If he knew for sure it was the same necklace, he wouldn’t be able to trust himself with a gun on this guy. “Where’d you get this?”
Zeke’s eyes widened but he quickly looked down. “Never saw it before in my life.”
Red hot anger bubbled at the edges of Andrew’s consciousness, but he ignored it and subtly pushed the gun a little closer. “That’s not what the guy at the pawn shop said. He got a real good picture of you on his security camera when you came in to pawn it.”
Zeke grunted. “Why do you care? Who are you anyway?”
Andrew stepped closer, his anger and frustration spilling over. “Your worst enemy if you don’t tell me where you got the necklace,” he growled through gritted teeth.
Beads of sweat glistened on Zeke’s round face as sirens sounded in the distance. “It was my mother’s. My only inheritance.”
“Andrew!” Elyse’s voice was shrill with panic. “Help me!”