Authors: Mariah Stewart
Tags: #Romance, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
From Pat Holsten’s journal:
“Work like you don’t need the money.
Dance like no one is watching.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.”
And she did.
I think the Devil will not have me damned,
lest the oil that is in me should set Hell on fire.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
UTSIDE THE COURTHOUSE, SLEET HISSED SOFTLY,
striking the front of the old stone building at sharp angles with muffled
s. From a narrow first-floor window, Curtis Alan Channing watched water spill from partially frozen gutters to overflow in icy waterfalls onto the frosted ground below. His eyes flickered upward to a sky the color of cinders, its low clouds hovering over the naked trees that lined the main walk leading to the courthouse steps.
News vans from competing television stations were parked side by side along the one-way street. He stared for a while, hoping to see if one of the pretty young reporters might surface, but no one emerged in the face of the storm other than a cameraman who occasionally poked his head out to check the readiness of his equipment before ducking back into the shelter of the vehicle. Channing wondered idly what event could be of sufficient interest to bring all those media types out so early on such a morning.
God knows they weren’t there to see him.
His eyes studied the sky as if he had nothing more immediate on his mind than the storm, but all the while he wondered how he’d managed to get himself into this mess and where it would, ultimately, lead.
It would be funny, if it had happened to someone else.
After all, to have successfully flown so low under the radar for all these years that he’d never even been fingerprinted, only to be brought in on an outstanding warrant that was a clear case of mistaken identity after he’d been stopped for blowing a stop sign, well, the irony was just killing him.
Course, now he had been fingerprinted. He’d have to keep that in mind in the future.
He shifted slightly in his seat and turned his head in the direction of the door, his ears picking up the sound of running feet. Seconds later, he heard shouts from somewhere slightly distant. Soon it became apparent that there was some sort of ruckus in the hallway beyond the small room where he’d been deposited. He hoped whatever it was wouldn’t interfere with his moment in court. He wanted nothing more than to get this over with and go on his way, wherever that might lead him.
He glanced at the clock on the wall for the tenth time since he’d been shown into the anteroom off the judge’s chambers to await his hearing. It was almost nine thirty in the morning. He’d been sitting there since eight forty-seven, and he was getting really, really bored.
He openly studied the young sheriff’s deputy who guarded the door. Couldn’t be much more than twenty-five, Channing figured. Didn’t look like much of a fighter—nor much of a lover, either, he smirked inwardly. He could take this kid blindfolded and with one hand behind his back.
Which, of course, he would not be fool enough to do. He hadn’t gone all these years without getting so much as a traffic ticket—well, not until Saturday morning, anyway—by being a fool. He wasn’t about to start now.
No, he’d wait patiently for them to bring him before the judge, he’d explain courteously that he was not the Curtis Channing who was named in that warrant—he was Curtis
Channing, not Curtis
Channing—and hopefully the court would check the social security numbers and physical descriptions, acknowledge the error, then see fit to let him walk out the door and go about his business. He would be gracious and charming, of course; set the arresting officers at ease by letting them know that he understood an honest mistake when he saw one and had no intention of suing them for false arrest.
A man in his position would have to be an idiot to threaten some kind of legal action.
There was more noise from the hallway, and he met the deputy’s eyes momentarily.
“What’s going on out there?” he asked.
The deputy smoothed his brown tie and shrugged his disinterest, as if too cool to speak to a prisoner.
This kid is green,
“How long you been working for the sheriff’s department?”
Before he could comment aloud, the slap-slap-slap of running feet pounded past the door. This time the young deputy did react, turning nervously to the glass panes and craning his neck to see what was going on. There was shouting now, and the door opened unexpectedly. An older deputy leaned in, whispered a few words to Channing’s guard, who nodded vigorously.
“We’re going to have to move you,” he said, motioning to his prisoner, “just into the next room.”
Channing stood and shuffled past obediently, curious as to what was going down. There was much commotion in the hallway, where a great number of brown-uniformed deputy sheriffs and other law enforcement types bustled about, some with their hands on their guns.
They’re on the hunt,
Channing thought, and wondered if perhaps one of the other inmates who’d made the ride in with him from the prison that morning had somehow managed to slip past the guards.
“Here you go, boys,” the older deputy announced as he opened the door to a room that was somewhat larger than the one Channing had occupied. “Got another roommate for you . . .”
The deputy held the door open as Channing made his entrance and nodded to the two men already within, both of whom he recognized as passengers from the van. Both were shackled like him, hands in front connected to a chain at the waist that connected to leg irons fastened at the ankles. The guard touched Channing in the middle of his back and pointed to a chair that stood against the wall. He moved toward it and sat, ignoring the indignity of being secured to the chair as were, he noticed, the other two prisoners.
“Behave yourselves, boys. No monkey business. A guard will be right outside. He’s armed and he won’t hesitate for one second to bring you down if you so much as move,” the deputy told them, then stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him.
“A bit heavy-handed, wouldn’t you say?” Channing mused as the door snapped shut.
“He’s just trying to intimidate us. There’s not one deputy sheriff in this county who could hit a man from more than ten feet away. They just ain’t that good,” scoffed the man who sat nearest the door. His red hair was fading as it mixed with gray, his white arms and face were covered with pale freckles. He reminded Channing of an aging Woody Woodpecker.
“Ah, then you’ve been here before,” Channing ventured.
“Lately, I been here almost as much as I been at High Meadow.” Woody named the county prison.
“What d’ya suppose is going on out there?” The third occupant of the room, a baby-faced man—a kid, really—with large round eyes, frowned nervously.
” Woody told him. “Waldo Scott. He rode in with us in the van this morning. He got himself free somehow and took off. Get it?
“No.” The young prisoner—Young Blood, Channing mentally tagged him—shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“They’re kids’ books,” Channing explained, though he couldn’t remember how he knew this.
“Yeah, Waldo runs around in a red-and-white-striped hat or shirt or something, and you have to find him on each page.”