Tyler, wake up,” Holly whispered. Her calm tone masked a heart pounding so loudly she feared her little brother would hear it as well.

 
Dark hair spiking above his rumpled blankets, Tyler rubbed his eyes and mumbled, “It’s still night.”

 
“We’re leaving. Now.” Some of her urgency finally broke though.

 
He sat, eyes wide in the dim glow of the streetlight filtering through his curtains. Holly hated doing this to him, but after taking yet another midnight call from Spence, her ex-fiancé, she didn’t dare wait any longer.

 
“I thought we weren’t leaving till Saturday,” Tyler grumbled as he rose and located the clothes he’d left folded at the foot of his bed. “What’s happened?”

 
Even at eleven, he was no dummy. Tyler had already come out on the wrong end of Spence’s temper and knew how vicious it could be. Holly ruffled his hair. God, she loved him. “Nothing we can’t handle, but I want to make sure we’re the ones staying a step ahead.”

 
No way would she share with him the latest threats Spence had made. Holly had tried going through the legal system. She’d obtained a restraining order right after Spence had gotten physical. Now it wasn’t enough. Something was off with Spence, something scary, and Holly wasn’t sticking around to see what. If the restraining order wasn’t going to stop him, then she and Tyler would just disappear.

 
“Meet me in the garage in five minutes. I’m going to check to make sure everything’s locked. We’ll drop the key by the real estate agent on the way out of town.”

 
She’d put the house on the market, but with the economy so slow, they’d had few nibbles, despite cutting the price. Now Holly hoped the real estate agent might be able to find a renter. It could provide some income, but she wasn’t holding her breath. Grinding her teeth was more like it.

 
She’d already put most of the furniture she wanted to keep in storage, figuring she could pick up odds and ends wherever they ended up. Once she was sure Spence hadn’t followed, she would send for the stored items. Still, her small car was packed as they backed out of the garage and eased down the street. Holly couldn’t help glancing at the rearview mirror several times. The house was the last tie to their parents. Now they would have to carry those memories in their hearts instead.

 
On the highway leading out of town, Holly at last dared a glance at her brother, giving him a small, reassuring smile as she squeezed his hand. So what if reassuring him also made her feel better too? Leaving the only home you’d ever known was scary.

 
His eyes reflected his uncertainty. “Are we doing the right thing?”

 
She shifted her hand to the swell of her pregnancy. “I hope so, Tyler.”

 
* * * *


When no one ANSWERED his call in the morning, Spence Dilby drove to Holly’s one-story ranch, snarling at every traffic light that slowed him down. Located in an upper-end area of Lynchburg, it still screamed middle class to him. He pulled to the back of the house where his car wouldn’t be seen. No use taking chances. He’d had enough of having the cops on his ass. Only fast-talking had gotten him out of hot water the last time. He didn’t need another incident because his father was nearing the end of his patience. At least he’d made his parents happy when he’d agreed to marry Seely.


He knocked on the back door. No one answered. He pounded, wanting nothing more than to feel his fist smash through the wood. Still no answer. Spence peered through the windows. “Open up, Holly! I know you’re in there.”

 
Silence was his only response. He walked to the French doors looking into the family room and noted with a burst of fury much of the furniture was gone. He smacked his palms against the wooden panels, the sting making him snarl. The bitch had left! He hadn’t believed her when she said she would. Why would she want to keep the baby when he would pay her to disappear out of its life?


Well, she wasn’t getting away that easily. No. Fucking. Way.


* * * *


Five-thirty in the morning and the sky had just begun to lighten above the ancient peaks east of Mountain Meadow. Jake Allred sucked in a deep breath, feeling yet again a profound sense of homecoming. More importantly, he could enjoy the imminent sunrise without feeling like he had to check over his shoulder or keep a hand on his sidearm. He knocked on his next-door neighbor’s door. The heavy wooden panel swung open to reveal the tall, lean figure of his best friend.

 
“We have to stop meeting like this, bro. People will begin to think we’re dating.”

 
Jake rolled his eyes. “Get off it, Evan. Even the church gossips know I can’t stand dating guys taller than me.”

 
Evan snickered. “Ready to run?”


“Ready to beat your ass.”

 
Running had become a morning ritual ever since Jake purchased the stately, blue Victorian home right next to Evan Richardson, the Castle County commonwealth’s attorney and Jake’s best friend. As their feet pounded the pavement along the deserted streets, Jake thought about the days getting shorter. He and Evan might be running in the dark soon, but Jake didn’t want to give up this morning ritual. Hearing their feet strike and lift in unison grounded him. He wasn’t on his own anymore. Evan was right there with him, just as he’d been for most of their lives.

 
The bite of the morning air was more intense. The vibrant colors of fall had already faded. It wouldn’t be long before winter blew in with its attendant headaches.


As they finished a route that brought them back to their houses, Evan asked, “Hey, we still on for poker tonight? Sam’s bringing someone with him.”

 
“Who?”


Evan laughed. “The new preacher from the Baptist church. Don’t tell his parishioners.”


“Are we pathetic or what? A Friday night and all we have to do is play poker…the sheriff, the police lieutenant, the lawyer, and now the preacher.” Jake grinned and slapped Evan on the back. “Maybe we should just wear signs that say ‘Losers.’”


“I don’t consider it pathetic,” Evan drawled, a glint in his eye. “I consider it once burned, twice shy.”

 

“Ancient history.”

 
“At least I have a history.”


“Screw you.”

 
“Later, baby.” Evan batted his lashes. “What would the neighbors say?”


* * * *


Holly’s stomach rolled. Whether it was from the baby or the sheer drop-off just a few feet away, she wasn’t sure. She had pulled off the shoulder of the Blue Ridge Parkway at a place where there was a scenic overlook. With one hip leaning against the car, she chewed on her lower lip, and stared, lost in thought, along the asphalt snaking around yet another curve. She rolled her shoulders and stretched away the tension in her neck.


Tyler stood near the edge of the mountain looking out over the valley spread below him. “This is awesome, Holly, like that miniature-town stuff Mom always set up at Christmas. Come look.”

 
Just a twinge of grief slipped through her consciousness at her brother’s mention of their mother. Far greater was the relief that Tyler could talk about her so easily. Holly grimaced in response to his suggestion, though.


“No, thanks. I’ll just admire it from here.”


She wasn't keen on heights to begin with, but pregnancy had made her even more cautious. Her whole sense of balance had changed. While Tyler put his hand up to shade his eyes and squinted off into the distance, she counted the money she’d managed to come away with and blew out a frustrated breath. They couldn’t go much farther. She needed to save her cash reserves for a place to live.

 
Glancing along the parkway, she noticed the sign indicating travel distances. They’d been on the road for what felt like hours. Surely they had put enough distance between themselves and Spence. Besides, Holly was nearing exhaustion after being up most of the night. She did a quick eenie-meenie-minie-mo and discovered her finger pointing toward a place called Mountain Meadow. Sounded pleasant enough. Probably not much happening there with such an idyllic-sounding name. At this point, its name could be Hell’s Harbor as long as she could find a place to put her feet up. More than anything, though, she liked the spontaneity. Maybe it would keep Spence off their trail longer.

 
“Come on, Tyler.”

 
“Where are we going?”

 
She pointed to the sign. “Mountain Meadow. Sound good to you?”


He shrugged. “I like mountains, so that would be cool.” As they drove toward the town, Tyler laughed. “Hey! We should go check out the road back there.”


“Why?” Holly’s fingers clenched on the steering wheel. Unrelieved driving along the twisty roads had tightened her nerves.


“It’s called Mistletoe Lane. You know…Holly and Mistletoe.”


She had to laugh. It felt good to be able to for a change, and on a whim, she found a turnaround and headed back. Spontaneous, that was what they were being. As they bumped down the road, she glanced at Tyler.


“This road is the pits, but maybe it will keep Spence away.”

 
Tyler giggled. “Sports cars and potholes aren’t a good mix. There’s a house up ahead.”


“And a truck parked out front.”


As they stopped in front of the small, wood-frame house, the door opened and a stoop-shouldered man stepped out onto the porch. He eyed them suspiciously.


“Can I help ya?” he called as Holly got out of the car.


Crossing her fingers behind her back for luck, she said, “I’m new around here. My little brother and I are looking for someplace to live. Do you know where I might be able to find a rental or real estate agent?”


The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Might be I could help you. I been thinking about renting this place out. Ain’t nothin’ fancy, but the roof don’t leak and it’s cheap.”


And right now, cheap suited Holly to a T. Making an instant decision, she smiled. “Sounds perfect. I’ll take it.”


“Ain’t offered it yet.”


She smiled. “But you’re going to, aren’t you?”


The old man laughed. “I like you. You got nerve.”


They hammered out a rental agreement, signed it with a handshake, and it was Holly’s car that stayed while the old man and his truck bumped back to the main road.


* * * *


If the church ladies could just see him now, they’d have a cow. Cards and poker chips were on the table. Jake grinned as he glanced around the living room. He’d pushed the big table that stood in front of the double window to the middle of the room with the kitchen chairs pressed into service around it. Knowing Sam and Evan would want cigars, Jake had set an ashtray to one side. Beer was in the fridge, along with soft drinks for the preacher. Potato chips and peanuts—check. He’d brought home pizza from Mercer’s. He even had some spray cheese and crackers. Yep.


He was ready. How freaking domestic.


With just himself for company, he’d admit it would be nice to have some noise around the big old house. He hadn’t thought about how empty it would seem when he bought it.


Maybe because he’d pictured it full of kids, like his house had been growing up with his three brothers and Becca, the baby. They had all gone their own ways as adults, but damn it would be nice to have family around. He rubbed the ache in his chest.


Right.


Single and not a woman in sight, and he was thinking kids.


When the door opened without a knock, he grinned. “In here, Evan.”


His friend sucked his teeth. “Aren’t you the domestic goddess. Are we having those little canapés on triangulated white bread?”


Jake grunted. “Pizza and beer. You want cucumber sandwiches, you need to hook up with one of those blue-blooded sorority girls your mama and daddy keep tossin’ your way.”


“Not hooking up with anyone, bro. Not happening.”


Jake laughed. “Right. You bought the big house just for you to ramble around in?”


Evan’s eyes narrowed. “Pot and kettle, man, and I bought mine before you. You have all the signs, Allred.”


“What signs?”


“Of a guy just looking to get hooked up.”


Jake snorted.


The door knocker thumped. Jake left his friend and the conversation behind, somewhat relieved Sam and his preacher buddy had interrupted.


“Jake…this is Joe Taylor,” Sam rumbled in his deep voice. “You met yet?”


“In passing.” Jake stuck out his hand. “Welcome, preacher.”


“Joe,” the younger man grinned, returning Jake’s greeting with a firm handshake. “This is definitely not a parochial visit. I’m hoping to fleece some of my potential flock…all proceeds to go to the church general fund, of course.”


Evan laughed. “I like you. Nice addition, Sam.”


The sheriff nodded. Sam was a big man, as tall as Evan and as broad as Jake. A little older than the rest of them, he was still a fixture—born and raised in Castle County.


As they sat and the dealing began, Jake thought his earlier conversation with Evan was over and done with, but after so many years, he should have known better. As Jake passed out pizza and paper towels, Evan said,


“So, Sam, don’t you think Jake has the look of a man just looking to settle down and get busy on the two-kids-and-a-dog routine? I mean, look how domestic he is already all handing out paper towels so we can wipe our fingers.”


“Bite me.” Jake laughed. “I just don’t want greasy fingerprints all over my cards. As to settling down? Unlike you, Ev, I don’t have any exes hanging around.”


This time the smile left Evan’s eyes and Jake knew he’d gone too far. Before he could think up some awkward apology, Sam spoke up.


“You’re both thirty. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of you with rings through your noses or on your fingers before the New Year.”


Jake and Evan’s eyes met and the two men howled.


* * * *


Almost a month after arriving in Mountain Meadow, Holly began to let down her guard. Tyler was enrolled in the local elementary school.


The bus picked him up at the end of the lane. She’d discovered few people braved Mistletoe Lane once they got a good look at the potholes. She lurched her way to the part-time job she’d found keeping books for Crawford Pallets. The job suited her and the pay was okay. Mr. Crawford, her boss, had been desperate to find someone to untangle the company finances, which were in terrible shape with invoices and receipts shoved willy-nilly into file folders and nothing entered on computer.


She’d straightened that out, and he was making noise about bringing her on full-time. Holly grinned. Extra hours would help. Mr. Crawford had been so relieved to have her handling the books, he’d even mentioned allowing her to bring the baby to work. At lunchtime, she knocked on his office door.


“Mr. Crawford, I just wanted to remind you about my doctor’s appointment this afternoon.”


He smiled over the half-moons of his reading glasses. “Right. Thanks, Holly. We’ll see you tomorrow then.”


She’d told Tyler to wait for her at the general store after school. With it being right off the town square, she figured it would be safe enough, especially since the courthouse and the police station were both within sight of it.


From Spence, she’d heard nothing at all. Of course, with their tightening finances, she’d had to let the cell phone go, so now he had no way to harass her. And he’d been cautious about calling her cell since the restraining order. No, he was very careful not to provide any solid proof of his badgering.


Her fingers tightened on the wheel as she drove to her appointment. Spence was a chameleon. That had been part of the problem. The face he presented to everyone else certainly wasn’t what she saw, at least now.


He’d been smooth enough to begin with. That’s how she’d gotten sucked in. Only later did she discover he was an adult and much more dangerous version of the kid who was always pinching or punching people behind the teacher’s back.


She wasn’t fooled anymore. He was a snake, and she needed to stay on her guard to make sure he didn’t slither back into their lives unnoticed.


The clinic was located in a building right next to the hospital. Holly’s choice of where to stop had been pretty fortunate. Mountain Meadow was the Castle County seat and laid claim to the sole hospital in a three county area—something she would need. Holly sat in the waiting area with people of all ages. A family practice wouldn’t have been her first choice, but it was close, and she’d had a lot of her prenatal care already done by her obstetrician before she left.


“Miss Morgan?”


As the nurse called her name, the curious stares of two older women zeroed in on her stomach. Holly had experienced censure before. Her gaze skimmed around the room, and she noticed only one other expectant mother, an uncomfortable looking father-to-be at her side.


Holly put her chin up. Well, she couldn’t boast any proud papa, nor did she want to if the choice was Spencer Dilby. He had been little more than a sperm donor, and she shuddered to think of that experience.


The nurse showed her into the doctor’s office. “Dr. Owens will be right with you.”


Holly nodded and sat. Knowing she would be leaving Lynchburg, she’d obtained copies of her medical history and dropped them off a couple of days ago. Medical books lined the shelves along one peach-painted wall, but there were no pictures of a husband or children. Her examination halted when the door opened and a petite blonde entered the room. Her hair was cut chin-length, as sleek and businesslike as the doctor seemed to be.


She held out her hand. “I’m Dr. Owens. Most patients call me Doc or Doc Jenny.”


Instead of going behind the desk, she sat next to Holly, softening the businesslike exterior. “I read through your file and wanted to ask you a couple of questions before we do an exam. There was a notice you are a no-information patient. I’ll make sure that stays in place.”


“Thanks. I appreciate it.”


“Has the baby’s father been attending any birthing classes with you?”


Holly shifted. Just the thought of Spence having anything to do with her baby’s birth was enough to make her queasy. “The father is the reason I’m a no information patient. H-he denied paternity to begin with, then after our split changed his mind. He’s been pressuring me to give him the baby.”


“Pressuring?”


Holly tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her hand just a bit shaky.


“He’s the heir to the Dilby Department store fortune,” she explained watching the doctor’s eyebrows lift. “It seems his new fiancée can’t have kids, so he’s decided he ‘needs’ mine. His words.”


“And this pressure was enough you left?”


“I have a protective order in place against him, which did nothing. He didn’t leave me a lot of choice. See, in addition to myself and the baby, I’m also guardian to my little brother. I had to think about what was best for all of us.”


Doc Owens nodded. “I’ve seen your ultrasound, so I see you’re having a little girl. Are you aware your doctor had written in his notes he had some concern about your cervix?”


“No.” A ripple of unease trickled down Holly’s spine.


“I’d like to take a look. You’re just six weeks from your due date, so chances are there’s not a problem, but let’s be sure, particularly since it’s your first. At twenty-two, your age works in your favor.”


A half hour later, they were back in Doc Owens’s office once more. This time, the doctor’s expression was more serious. “Holly, have you been experiencing any cramps or feelings of heaviness?”


“Some. I figured it was just stress from moving and everything.”


Doc tapped her finger against the ultrasound image she’d been studying. “Well, you’re already effaced and starting to dilate, like someone a whole lot closer to term. How accurate is this due date?”


Holly sucked in a shaky breath. “Very. There was just one night…”


Jenny nodded, her finger still tapping. “I’d like you on bed rest. You could go into labor any time. If we can get your little girl to hold off, I’d prefer it not be for at least three more weeks. The nearest obstetrician’s more than an hour’s drive away. It might be simpler to have you in the hospital…”


“No. I can’t do that. I have my little brother to take care of. I have a job…and I don’t have health insurance.” A vision of what might happen if there were complications began to form, but Holly pushed it away. Panic was the last thing she could afford right now.


When she left the clinic, Holly was still trying to take everything in. She’d always tried to take things in stride, but this overwhelmed her. Bed rest. What on earth was she going to do?


* * * *


“I’m sure we can find her, Mr. Dilby.”


Spence sat across from the private detective who was looking at the information Spence had given him about Holly. The paunchy guy tapped Tyler’s picture. “This might be our best place to start. She’ll have to enroll him in school. I’ve also got a contact who can help me out with tax info. If she’s working someplace, she’ll show up on his records.”


Spence allowed himself a slight smile. “Excellent. Needless to say, this needs to be kept quiet. I’m now engaged to another woman, but I’m concerned about the welfare of my unborn child. Holly has shown signs during the pregnancy of depression, and I just can’t help thinking about all those cases involving new mothers…” He let his voice trail off and, as he hoped, the detective’s expression grew even more concerned.


“We’ll find her. Don’t you worry.”


Spence stood, shook his hand and exited the office building with a small smile of self-satisfaction.


* * * *


Jake noticed the dark-haired boy sitting on the bench outside of Mountain Meadow General Store when he drove around the square to pull up in front of the small, brick building that housed the police department and his cramped office. An hour later, as he walked over to Tarpley’s, what most folks called the store, to grab some chips and a drink, the kid was still there.


“Hey, buddy,” he greeted him. “How’s it going?”


“Okay.” The kid gave him a sidelong glance from eyes that held more suspicion than he was used to from a boy so young.


“Kind of cold to be sitting out here so long. You waiting on your mom?”


“My sister. She’s at the doctor.” He scuffed his sneakers on the pavement.


“Well come on in. I’ll get you a candy bar and you can warm up. Mr. and Mrs. Tarpley won’t mind if you sit inside.”


The kid glanced at Jake’s badge, then at the store. “If you think it’d be okay. My butt is getting kinda cold.”


“What’s your name?”


“Tyler Morgan.”


“I’m Lieutenant Allred.” Jake grinned at him and they walked inside together. After introducing him to the older couple who’d run the store ever since Jake could remember, he let Tyler pick out a candy bar. While the kid sat near the window, munching on the chocolate and caramel, Jake spoke to the Tarpleys. “Haven’t seen him around here. He new?” Susie Tarpley nodded. “He and his sister Holly rent the old Crawley place.”


Jake raised his brows in surprise. The house had been run-down when he was a teenager, and knowing old man Crawley, he doubted anything had changed. The bell above the door jingled and a burst of cold air entered. Jake glanced over and caught his breath, feeling as if someone had sucker punched him right in the gut. The woman who walked in was gorgeous, with hair the color of aged whisky, pale skin, and cheeks just touched with pink from the cold air.


“Holly!” Tyler jumped off his chair. “I thought you forgot me.”


This must be the sister. As she shifted to give the boy a hug, Jake noticed her pregnancy, and disappointment stabbed him. Someone had already claimed her. Her gaze lifted to his, green eyes wide and wary as she took in his uniform.


“We need to go, Tyler,” she murmured with an urgency that seemed out of place.


“How’d your doctor’s visit go?”


She started to say something, glanced over her shoulder at Jake and the Tarpleys, and said, “We’ll talk when we get home.”


Jake leaned against the counter, watching the door shut behind them.


“Did you say it’s just her and the boy in the Crawley place?”


“Yup,” Jim confirmed. “They’ve been in several times for groceries. She’s pleasant and polite, but a little shy. The boy’s a good kid. He’s helped a couple of older folks out to their cars with groceries. They keep to themselves.”


And she had something to hide. The thought had popped into Jake’s head and wouldn’t go away. He’d also gotten the distinct feeling his uniform made her even warier. He must be imagining things. Or trying to come up with a reason to see her again?


Jake nearly snorted out loud. She was pregnant, no doubt had a boyfriend or a husband somewhere already. He’d just mind his own business. Out where she lived, she was Sam’s concern anyway.


Special Delivery

Excerpt

Teacher. Editor. Author.

Laura Browning