Jude wondered if it was possible to freeze to death in the space of a single block.
Winter was solidly in place—and she used that term advisedly—as she walked the main street of Lone Butte from her rented apartment to the UFO Café. She wore every piece of outdoor clothing she owned, and she was still shaking by the time she got halfway down the block.
But Jude Carmichael, a Sunshine State girl born and bred, knew the cold was a small price to pay for her safety. And she felt safe in this tiny, isolated town in the wilds of Montana. Not just because no one would ever think to look for her here, but because of Rory Wellwood.
He watched over her as he watched over all the residents of his town. But he also watched her in a completely different way, a way that made the skin on her arms tingle. Too bad she couldn’t take him up on his offer. An unspoken offer that nevertheless gleamed in his eyes when he looked at her, and shone through in his smile when he saw her.
Rory Wellwood was the polar opposite of her ex-husband, an ex who believed that safety was hell and that the important things in life were drugs, violence, pain, and crime. As a naïve eighteen year old, Jude had seen none of that—only the twinkle in Hank’s eyes and the promise of another, more exciting life. And that was exactly what she had for the next ten years, though not in the way she’d expected. Jude spent ten years in a marriage where every day was an adventure as frightening as an out of control roller coaster, where she had no idea where she would sleep or even if she would sleep.
Hank’s associates—she called them that because he didn’t believe in friends—were as evil and twisted as he was. She thanked God for his jealousy; the one thing he refused to do was share her. It took her ten years to get the courage, and the money, to leave him, and she’d been running ever since.
Jude had lived in twenty states in the past ten years. She’d stayed in Chicago for a single month—the shortest stay—and Charleston, North Carolina for almost a year—the longest. She was an expert at running. She’d learned a lot over the past twenty years, but the most important thing was that men were not to be trusted.
Not even Rory Wellwood. It didn’t matter that his well-lined, handsome face promised security. It didn’t matter that his deep brown eyes promised a passion she’d never experienced, and his long-fingered hands promised comfort.
Jude Carmichael was never getting involved with another man in her life. One was enough. Hank Conroy was more than enough man for a lifetime.
And more than that, she knew she’d be running sooner rather than later. She’d been in Lone Butte for almost a year, and Hank would soon be closing in. Once she’d left him, he swore he’d make it his life’s ambition to find her and punish her for leaving him.
Punishment first and then take her home with him. That was his goal. Her goal was to stay safe. And she felt safe here, as safe as she’d felt in twenty years. She knew she’d have to leave…
And she was ready for it. She always was.
She had a bag packed and stashed in the trunk of her car. She never went anywhere without her identification. Her bank account was accessible from anywhere in the country, and she didn’t own a computer, but used the one at the library so there was no information left behind in her apartment.
She lived on the third floor of a building with an old-fashioned fire escape, which she could access from her bathroom window. She had brand new and expensive locks on all the windows and the door, and she backed those up with heavy-duty pipes to prevent them from being opened.
Smoke alarms beeped their red lights at every corner and in the middle of each room. Jude didn’t wait for a year to change the batteries; she did it every three months without fail.
Her car—a perfectly maintained twenty-year-old Volvo in nondescript beige—was always filled with gas, the oil was changed more often than necessary, the tires were brand new. She’d installed an expensive GPS in case she got caught on the logging roads that carved through the trees on the surrounding mountains.
Jude was the poster child for the slogan, Be prepared.
Hank had caught up to her twice, and both times she’d been lucky. In Ithaca, a cook at the café had walked out the back door for a smoke and seen Hank with his left hand wrapped in her hair and his right smashing her face. The cook had a cleaver in his hand and had chased Hank away, though, sadly, hadn’t managed to slice his arm off. Hank had a small cut on his arm, not even stitch worthy, but no serious damage.
She’d spent three weeks in the hospital, six months and five operations getting her face back in place, and Hank had spent a total of seven days in detention once the cops had found him. They’d found him because they staked out her hospital room. Jude had suggested it because she knew he’d show up to finish what he’d started. That time, Hank ran for cover the minute one of his associates had posted bail.
The second time was in Woodland, just outside Sacramento. Jude had fallen in love with the pretty, little town and had found a job at the Main Street Diner and an apartment only a block from it. He’d found her small living space and set fire to it, with her inside. Lucky for her the next-door neighbor had a dog whose barking had saved everyone in the building.
Hank had been long gone when Jude left the hospital three days later, her few belongings burned to ashes and her lungs still heaving from smoke inhalation.
Nope, no men for Jude Carmichael. She’d lived ten years without one, and she wasn’t interested in a relationship. She just wanted to get through another day and still be working at the UFO Café, still going home to her third-floor walk-up on Frontier Street, still serving coffee and eggs over easy to Rory Wellwood.
She didn’t want much, Jude mused. Just a little safety. Just a little time and space to become even more a part of Lone Butte. She wanted to grow old here, like Mrs. Rupert, the mayor of Lone Butte who’d lived in the same house at the end of Frontier Street for almost ninety years and who still walked to the UFO Café every day for a tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat and a Diet Pepsi—ice cold and still in the can—for lunch.
Jude loved her job. She loved the UFO Café with its quirky alien spacecraft outside the door, and its menu covered in pictures of UFO sightings. She loved her customers, all of whom treated her with respect and didn’t ask any questions she couldn’t answer.
And she loved this town. Lone Butte was different from anywhere she’d ever been, and she thought she’d been everywhere. Small towns all over the country were all the same, she thought, before she drove into Lone Butte.
She’d been wrong.
Lone Butte was what every small town should be. It was warm, despite the frigid temperature. It was welcoming, even though most small towns took time to get used to strangers.
Lone Butte and its inhabitants had welcomed her with open arms, treating her as if she belonged, and for that, she was grateful. For that, she was sorry, because it was going to make it harder to leave and easier to ignore the twinges of fear that would tell her it was time to go.
Jude would stay here as long as she could, but she would go when she started to twitch. She’d go not for her own safety this time, but for the safety of the people she was learning to love.
She’d go for Mrs. Rupert. For Sue Ellen, who worked the day shift at the UFO Café with her. For Sam Howick, the owner of the café and the father of two red-headed twins—Brendan and Kieran—who spent each afternoon in the booth in the corner, drinking milk and eating Sam’s excellent chocolate chip cookies while they waited for Sam or his wife, Maura, to be finished work.
She’d leave because of Maura, the nurse at the clinic down the street who looked after the inhabitants of Lone Butte with dedication and cheerfulness.
And she’d leave, most of all, because of Rory Wellwood. Hank would see right away the connection she had with him, a connection that consisted of nothing more than yearning and a few shared intimate glances. That would be enough for Hank Conroy, more than enough.
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