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DANCE WITH A STRANGER
His lips parted slightly as he laced his fingers with hers. Then he began to lead her. She closed her eyes and let herself be consumed by her senses: the beat and sway of the music, the heat of him, the scent of fresh air and maleness that emanated from him, the scratch of his day's stubble when he leaned down and pressed his cheek against hers, the delicious ripple that his closeness stirred deep in her belly.
Suddenly, he took all that away by spinning her around. The movement took Leigh off guard, or she might have fought to remain where she was, wrapped in a cocoon of pure sensation. But as she found herself staring directly into those commanding blue eyes, she realized the sensuality had just begun.
For Bill, my partner in all things.
Although writing is a solitary endeavor, it isn't done alone. I owe much to many. First of all, thanks to my sister, Sally Hoffman, for setting my feet on this path initially. Thanks to my mother, Marge Zinn, for her unflagging faith.
My critique partners, each in their own unique way, have helped shape this book into its final form. I have the most fabulous critiquers a writer could ever wish for, the ladies of WITTS (Women Inspired to Tell Stories): Garthia Anderson, Vicky Harden, Brenda Hiatt, Esther Hodges, Pam Jones, Alicia Rasley, Laurie Sparks and Betty Ward, and my on-line critique partner, Karen White.
I'd also like to thank police Chief and ex-county sheriff, Dick Russell, for his time and patience in answering all of my logistic and procedural questions regarding sheriffs' departments in Indiana. Also, my appreciation goes to the boys at Randall and Roberts for insight on how a sheriff can be removed from office, and to firefighter Craig Orum for his description of battling wildfires.
I am forever grateful for the guidance and support of my editor, Karen Kosztolnyik, and the enthusiasm and backing of Beth de Guzman at Warner Books. And a huge thank-you to my agent, Linda Kruger; I'd probably still be spinning my wheels if not for you.
If you stand in one place long enough, your shadow will move on without you. As the sun and moon arc overhead, the dark silhouette of your body slips silently across the ground, anchored only by the soles of your feet. Leigh Mitchell had seen herself thus, standing stock-still on the courthouse square of the southern Indiana town where she'd been born, as her shadow, and her life, slid slowly and unremarkably by.
She'd been county sheriff for two years, elected against all odds, she felt, because of her brother's lifelong popularity in their community. Not that she wasn't qualified; she was. But there was a certain pecking order in law enforcement. She'd bucked the system and won. Still, the tedium of drunken teenagers, games of mailbox baseball, speed traps, and old man Grissom's constant calls about UFOs hovering over his corn field were wearing unbearably thin.
Her thirtieth birthday had settled on the horizon, hunched like a stone gargoyle, dismally staring her in the face. In everything around her she saw the quiet accusation: you are wasting time. A sense of near panic took root in her belly as the blossoms of spring gave way to the rustling green leaves of summer. By the Fourth of July, the fruit of that seed sent tendrils of dread squeezing her windpipe.
Her restlessness occasionally threatened to take over her good sense entirely. But it was nearly autumn before she gave in to it, driven by the certainty that if her life didn't change, she'd end up as withered and dusty as the parched ground under her feet.
Still, had she known the crosswinds from that malcontented summer were going to blow in the fall from hell, she'd have gladly remained dusty and boring.
The diesel cloud enveloped Will as the truck driver pulled away from the intersection. He stood on the side of a dark two-lane highway with all of his earthly possessions crammed into a road-worn backpack, deciding which direction to take. Heart warred with head, his good sense telling him not to venture down this road. It had been paved with good times on his previous visit; why take a chance on ruining it? But he'd been pulled across the miles by the innocent and secure memories engraved during the one carefree summer of his youth. How he longed for the simple comfort of familiar surroundings, of childhood dreams yet to be born, and to be, even for the briefest time, away from the ugliness that stained his adult world.
The shroud of exhaust cleared, and there before him was the sign: GLENS CROSSING 4 MI. Will looked at the red taillights of the truck receding into the night, then in the direction of the town.
He'd just walk a little closer, camp nearby, then decide in the morning. Tonight, painful thoughts of his current situation made it far too easy to crawl back into the past. The darkness had a way of distorting both past and present, making them more hideous and more marvelous than they actually were. In the light, he could see things more clearly—the horror of the last months less pronounced, the delights of the one wonderful summer less remarkable.
He walked a good part of the way toward the town. His aching feet told him he'd covered over two miles, when it caught his eye. There, across the wide open expanse of a bean field, rose the lighted spokes of a Ferris wheel. A harvest moon, so large and low in the sky that it appeared to be painted on the black of night, sat on the horizon, seemingly side by side with the carnival ride. A filmy haze sent three gray fingers across the enormous golden disk. One of those fingers appeared crooked and beckoning.
Well, hell. A sign? The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and rose as the skin at the base of his skull tightened. Had he been thirty minutes later, that moon would have been up in the sky where it belonged, away from the thin clouds, the inviting golden light brightened to cold blue-white.
Instead of being calmed by the thought of divine intervention, he sighed heavily with the weight of too many miles, too many memories. He closed his eyes briefly and told himself, once again, to wait.
Tomorrow. A word which had for the past four months become his mantra.
He glanced around, looking for a good place to bed down for the night, and heard the steady thrum of a sub-woofer pounding ever nearer. A long minute passed before he saw the headlights of the car.
It sped past him, the reverberation from the speakers battering him in the chest. He watched it pass, wondering how the hearing of the car's occupant could ever recover. Immediately, the brake lights brightened and the car slowed. The driver slammed it into reverse before the tires stopped rolling forward, adding a squeal to the bass and the smell of burnt rubber to the air.
The car stopped in front of him, nearly rolling over his toes. The tinted window came down and a girl in her late teens leaned across the passenger seat. For a moment his heart skipped a beat. If he didn't know she was dead, he'd have sworn he was looking at his sister, Jenny—same shoulder-length brown hair, same tilt to the green eyes.
Then the girl smiled and the eerie similarity disappeared, the smile too wide, the lips too full.
"Need a ride?"
He started to tell her no, when she added, "I'm just going to the carnival, but I can give you a lift that far."
The carnival. The Ferris wheel. Well, damn, he didn't have to be hit over the head to get the picture. He was destined to walk the streets of Glens Crossing once again.
A peculiar sense of security radiated from the garish lights that flashed against the pitch black sky. Blue, red and green bare bulbs, strung like gypsy baubles, broke the darkness overhead, washing out the stars. Leigh Mitchell watched the brightly lit spokes of the Ferris wheel revolve, feeling once again that life in Henderson County hadn't changed much since she was five years old.
This year the dust puffed a bit higher underfoot and the flat, dry odor of dead grass was stronger because of the drought. But the carnival, as most every other social landmark, remained essentially unaltered from season to season, year to year, decade to decade. It was the last fling of summer; the boisterous, colorful boundary between seasons. Trampled grass beneath her tennis shoes, the tempting aroma of grilling sausage and green peppers, sticky cotton candy on smiling cherub faces, hard-won stuffed animals wrapped in teenagers'arms—all the same as last year, and the year before, and the year before that.
Glens Crossing was a town where respectable widows remained widows. Where your lot was pretty much cast when your birth certificate registered the north or south side of the tracks that bisected town. Where expectations were strong and habitually met. Here, your secrets were never your own.
She guessed that, in a nutshell, could be pegged as the crux of her discontent. Her place in this town had been carved long before adulthood. She'd been "the Mitchell girl"— the responsible one, the one who had to grow up early because her parents were gone, the one teachers could count on to follow the rules and go above and beyond in the classroom, the one adults smiled at when passing on the street, the one invisible to her classmates. No one ever looked her way when mischief had been done—wouldn't even consider the possibility that Leigh Mitchell had strayed outside the realm of good behavior.
Nothing had changed in the past twenty-three years.
A pack of giggling teenage girls bumped her as they hurried by, calling a quick and insincere apology over their shoulders. Leigh shook her head to rid herself of maudlin thoughts and moved on through the crowd.
She nodded as she passed Mr. Grissom of local UFO fame. Beside him, his tiny, mouse-like wife clutched a bag of saltwater taffy close to her bosom, as if she feared someone would wrench it from her grasp. The woman spent so much time isolated on their farm, pinned under her spouse's heavy thumb that she hardly seemed capable of human interaction. On the rare occasions that Leigh had seen and spoken to her, Mrs. Grissom's tongue had been quickly shackled by a stern look from her husband.
Mr. Grissom tipped his hat to Leigh, while his wife lowered her eyes and tightened her grip on the taffy.
It was time to inspect the perimeters. Although Leigh was off-duty and the carnival actually fell into the city police's jurisdiction, she felt a sense of obligation to serve and protect. Besides, there were only six full-time officers on the local force. She always helped out where she could.
The darkness edged close to the back of the vendors' trailers and the rides. Not much real mischief likely around here, but Leigh's perimeter walks had probably saved more than one set of parents from being made grandparents before their time. She grinned at the memory of embarrassed faces and muttered explanations. Even though she rarely wore a uniform, opting for a sheriff's department knit shirt and a non-regulation .38 in a fanny holster when on duty, the kids all knew who she was. Tonight she was weaponless.
A whooping alarm sounded at the duck shoot. Youthful voices rose in a cheer as the hawker hailed another winner. In spite of his jovial announcement, the man didn't look the least bit pleased to hand over a huge Pink Panther to the marksman.
Leigh neared the end of the midway and stopped in her tracks. Standing in the dim lighting at the entrance to the semi-trailer that served as a traveling Tunnel of Love, Brittany Wilson was talking to a man Leigh didn't recognize. She slowly worked her way in their direction.
Brittany was a constant source of gossip and speculation—the town's wild child. She was the daughter of Leigh's brother's partner, and a spirit much too lively to be contained by their rural community. Leigh admired such vivacity, so unlike her own plodding responsibility. Even though most of the girl's escapades had so far been harmless (forking yards, sliding down the dam, swimming in the quarry, toilet papering the courthouse square), Leigh took extra care to watch over her, just in case her adventurous nature took her down a path of no return.
Leigh strolled closer, keeping an ear open for some indication of their conversation. Before she could get close enough to hear, Brittany turned and saw her. The girl waved Leigh closer.
"Hey, Leigh." Brittany turned her gaze back to the stranger. "This is . . ." She giggled. "What did you say your name was again?"
"Will Scott." The man stepped forward and extended his hand to Leigh. A wedge of bright light from the ride entrance crossed his face. His smile was relaxed, but a restlessness played about his eyes. Eyes of the brightest blue shot a bolt of lightning straight to her core. It was a reaction totally visceral, immediate and intense. She hadn't been this overcome by pure sexual temptation since Bobby Thompson in the seventh grade. Man, that kid took her breath away. Of course, she reminded herself, that didn't work out too well. Bobby never even knew she existed.
"Leigh Mitchell." She liked the feel of his handshake, firm and dry, not loose and floppy like so many men when they shake hands with a female.
A crowd of teenagers called to Brittany. The girl didn't hesitate to abandon them. "Gotta go! See you around, Will."
"Thanks for the ride," he called after her.
Leigh tucked her chin and eyed the man from under drawn brows. "Ride?"
"Brittany saw me hoofing it down the road and gave me a ride into town."
Leigh muttered, "I'm going to kill that girl."
He grinned. "I gave her the standard 'never pick up hitchhikers' lecture, but it was a little lame coming from someone taking advantage. But"—he nearly looked ashamed—"I really was grateful for the lift." He raised a foot out in front of him. "New shoes. Blisters." Then he added, as if he were trying to pull the girl from hot water, "She did promise never to do it again."
Brittany lived several miles outside of Glens Crossing, in a house nestled on a hundred acres of ravined woodland. She had to travel four country roads and the main highway every time she came into town. The girl couldn't resist strays—familiar or foreign, canine or human.
Leigh looked at Will more closely. He didn't appear to be a homeless vagrant. His hair and clothes were neat and clean. An engaging intelligence showed in his features and his diction spoke of a decent education. Yet, there was something that said "bad boy" about him. Deep down, Leigh had always wanted to have a fling with a bad boy. "Visiting someone in Glens Crossing?"
He shook his head, but didn't offer more. He looked down the length of the midway.
"Just passing through, then?"
He shrugged and answered in a distracted tone, "Probably."
She continued to study him, allowing herself to assess him more fully. She prided herself on nailing a person's true nature on something just short of first sight. It was a gift that she'd fostered, knowing that in her line of work quick assessment could keep a dicey situation from going completely bad.
Will's gaze was fastened on the Ferris wheel, a childlike gleam in his eye. He appeared totally relaxed, not at all like a person with ulterior motives or something to hide.
Just as she started to excuse herself, he said, in a nostalgic tone, "I saw the lights of the Ferris wheel from the highway. I couldn't resist. It's been such a long time. . . ." Then he looked her in the eye. "Ride with me?"
"Well, I really have—"
There was such boyishness in his smile, such spark in his eyes she couldn't refuse. After all, she was off-duty. Let it go. It was time to do something she wanted to do, simply because she wanted to do it. And, she realized as she looked at him, she did want to spend more time with Will Scott. The mere thought of passing the evening with a total stranger, especially one this attractive, seemed to be the first step in the right direction to break out of her mold—something that a truly cautious and responsible Leigh just wouldn't do.
She decided then and there, this year it was just too bad for those parents whose teenagers were swept away on a tide of hormones. Every morning for the past week as she looked into the mirror she had recited: I am not responsible for every action of every person I know. She was still trying to make herself live the pledge.
"Okay." The very utterance of the word was liberating. Good-bye old Leigh, hello new.
He took her hand—the contact of an excited child to a parent, not man to woman—and moved so quickly she stumbled along behind. Of course, she had to overcome her initial reaction and allow herself to be dragged—all part of being New Leigh.
Steve Clyde, one of her deputies, and his wife passed by. His lingering surprised look as he said good evening tickled Leigh right to her toes. Maybe I'm not so predictable, huh fella?
Being an independent woman—there was only so much reinventing a person could do in one night—she stepped up to the ticket booth first and purchased her own ticket. Behind her, Will protested that since she sacrificed her time to go with him, he intended to pay.
She just smiled. There was nothing sacrificial about her decision. In fact, it was rather selfish. She liked him; he piqued her curiosity. Although he had the look of a bad boy, he openly showed childish joy at a simple small-town carnival—something most men had outgrown, or buried beneath a veneer of masculine indifference. Leigh liked simple things. It was nice to meet someone who could share and understand.
Once at the top of the Ferris wheel's rotation, Leigh gripped the lap bar with one hand and, with gentle movements that wouldn't rock their seat, pointed out the little downtown. It was built around the brick and limestone courthouse whose lighted clock tower stood above all else. As she looked at it, she realized with a pang of regret, that clock tower represented the absolute center of her universe. Suddenly the future rolled out in an endless desert of sameness and that sense of suffocating panic rose once again.
Was she going to be an old woman whose days had to be filled with listening to others recount the excitement of youth, the adventures of life, simply because she hadn't experienced any of her own? The very thought made her shudder.
The wheel started to turn again and they were slowly lowered below the tree tops. "Where are you from, Will?"
He shrugged, rocking the seat slightly. "Nowhere, really."
"Come, on. Everybody's from somewhere. Birthplace, high school, there has to be someplace to anchor you."
"Been on the move so long, I can't remember living in one place long enough to call it home." There was a hint of some emotion in his voice that Leigh couldn't quite put her finger on, intense—yet somehow wistful.
She looked at him and saw a momentary trace of bitterness in his eyes. But he smiled and quickly disguised the emotion. Then he looked away and said, under his breath, "Nope, no home for me."
The seat jolted as the wheel jerked into motion once again. Leigh quickly grabbed the bar with both hands.
He touched her arm. "Okay?"
"Yeah." She looked away, hating to admit weakness. Over the years she'd perfected an image of strong competence. Only her brother Brian saw anything else. "Just not crazy about this ride. Got stuck on one when I was eight. Took an hour for them to get the damned thing started again."
His head jerked around to look fully at her. "Really? Here in Glens Crossing?"
She still didn't meet his gaze, but nodded. "Scared the living daylights out of me."
After a minute he said, with apology in his tone, "You really didn't have to come."
"Gotta do some things that scare you, or you might as well curl up in a closet and wait to die." She didn't elaborate that this was her new motto, not the basis of her entire life up to this point.
"Amen to that."
She gave him a sideward glance. "A risk taker, are you?"
"The bane and boon of my existence." He offered a slight smile, but his voice certainly held no hint of amusement. In fact, he sounded a little sad.
They stopped at the bottom and the attendant swung the bar away from their laps. Will stepped out and offered Leigh a hand. He didn't let go when they walked down the mid-way. It felt like a gesture of friendship, nothing more. It felt—comforting.
"I haven't been to a carnival like this in years," he said. "1 think I was eleven the last time..."
"And where was—?"
"Hey, elephant ears!" He pointed to a vending trailer and quickened his pace. "Want one?" Without waiting for an answer he held up two fingers to the concession worker. Then he fished a wad of bills from his pocket and paid the woman.
As he waited for the butter and cinnamon sugar to be slathered on the huge pastries, Leigh took in his full appearance. At first she'd assumed, with those gas-jet blue eyes, that his longish hair was brown. But now that he was standing in bright light, she saw it was raven black. He was dressed in well-worn jeans, molded over time to the contours of his body. She'd bet those babies still looked like he was in them long after he'd taken them off.
Shame on me, she thought, and jerked her gaze away from his firm little posterior.
He wore a black T-shirt, a battered backpack carelessly slung over one shoulder, and definitely new athletic shoes. Except for the shoes, which should have been scuffed motorcycle boots for this image, he looked like a James Dean movie character; a bad-boy drifter, breaking hearts in every county as he moved aimlessly from place to place. He wasn't devastatingly handsome, yet the strength in his face was commanding. And those eyes... intense enough to nail you to the wall with a glance and keep you pinned there, heartbeat hammering in your ears. He moved with unconscious confidence, a man fully content with who he was.
She realized he was speaking. Leigh forcibly cleared her head, hoping she hadn't missed anything important while she was dallying in her lusty thoughts.
"Eat it before it gets cold." He shoved a waxed paper holding the hot elephant ear into her hand and they walked on.
As she took the first bite, she considered the extra miles she'd have to run in the morning. Penance for sins against the body. But the buttery sweetness carried all unpleasant thoughts away and she enjoyed every morsel of it, until the last sticky finger had been licked.
They'd made a complete circuit of the carnival grounds by the time Leigh had finished eating. Their conversation had remained limited to comical observations and common chitchat, talking of carnivals and small towns. She still could gain no sense of his origins. When he'd refer to a specific location, she'd question if that's where he'd grown up, or gone to school, or some similar leading question. He'd always shake his head and say, no, it was just someplace he'd passed through. He had no accent to give her a hint of where he'd come from. But he did have a very appealing sense of humor. Which quickly made her forget he was a virtual stranger.
"So," Leigh asked, "are you staying in town?"
"Tonight, at least."
"Why all the questions?" He snapped his fingers and looked sharply at her. "You're the reporter for the local gossip column." The words were delivered with a teasing smile.
"Something like that." Now she was being evasive.
"Lived here long?"
"All my life."
"Let's see." He closed his eyes and made a motion with his fingers near his temple, as if summoning great powers of concentration. "Graduated in the top ten percent of your class." He took a veiled peek at her, then closed his eyes again. "I'd say college, in-state of course. Degree in journalism and relentless interrogation." He grinned at the jab, but didn't open his eyes. "Then you came back to work for the local paper. Hmm, let's see, oh, yes, student council. Homecoming queen?"
She laughed as he opened his eyes and focused their powerful beam on her. Her cheeks warmed under his scrutiny. "Hardly. That was my sister-in-law." She didn't tell him he'd hit the nail on the head about everything else—well, except she'd led him to think she worked for the paper.
"Sister-in-law. Married, then?" His gaze flicked to her left hand, as if truly worried. "I didn't see a ring...."
"No, no. Kate is my brother Brian's wife."
"Good." Before she could ask him what he meant by that, he sighed and said, "It must be something to have all of your life concentrated in one spot—past, present, future. The memories have to hover so much closer to the surface." His eyes temporarily seemed to lose focus. "High school . . ." He shook his head, as if to jiggle the memories into their proper place. Then, suddenly, he held up a finger, asking her to wait, and strode off.
She watched him walk away, her interest amplified by every one of his ambiguous answers. Which themselves might go unnoticed by most people, simply because he was so good at delivering them. But Leigh's job was to hear what people didn't say, to be accurate in her first assessment of a person's nature. She found Will Scott warm and interesting, yet with a carefully maintained distance. She sensed a soul colored by painful shadows, not stained with malicious and devious character. A challenge to decipher—and Leigh could never resist a challenge.
He returned shortly with a couple of tickets in hand. He took her by the elbow and guided her toward the entrance of the Tunnel of Love.
"I never got to do this with a date in high school," he said as he herded her into line. "Always wanted to."
"Oh, I don't know . . ." Her feet dragged in the direction of the ride.
"I've got the tickets. You wouldn't make me go alone, would you?" Then he eyed her with an air of dramatic suspicion. "Or are you afraid of the dark, too?"
"Of course not! But . . ." An excuse was ready to spill from her mouth when she reminded herself that this reticence to follow her desires was exactly the thing she was beginning to hate most about herself. She bit the refusal back. "I'll go."
As she looked at him standing next to her, something deep in her belly thrilled at the prospect of being in the dark with him. Forbidden fruit.
So as she climbed into the "boat" next to a man she didn't know, her body hummed with possibilities. The tinny pod clanked along on a chain pulley in three inches of slimy green water.
"Since we're traveling down memory lane," Leigh said, "fulfilling lost wishes, I assume when we're done here, you'll go straight to the basketball shoot and win me one of those big stuffed dogs." She paused and lowered her eyes and her voice. "I always wanted one of those." Her sister-in-law Kate had enough to fill a large room by the time they'd graduated high school. And not all of them had been provided by Brian, Henderson County's star quarterback. Kate had had quite a following. Leigh used to call them her male harem. And she'd had a hard time keeping the envy out of her voice when she did.
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2003
- Page Count
- 416 pages