They never should have met.
Dutiful citizen and school principal Kerrin Horton is serving four years as mayor of the small California desert town of Freedom. Incorrigible thief Gary Scopus is doing twenty-five years-to-life on a burglary charge in Chino State Prison. But when the FBI needs an expert in security systems to prevent a bombing in Freedom, they temporarily extract Gary from prison and set him undercover in Kerrin’s threatened town.
As the only one to know Gary’s true identity, Kerrin intends to keep her constituents safe from the black hearted criminal. But when Gary gets roped into teaching summer school to the town’s troubled teens, Kerrin finds the felon acts more like a mother hen than a monster. Gary only wants to earn his promised sentence reduction. He’s dismayed by Kerrin’s growing respect, and soon discovers there’s more danger in one innocent woman than in all the prisons to which he’s ever been sent.
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Wind whipped ice across Matt’s face as he rappelled down the sheer wall of cliff. Even though his heart raced, he slowed his speed since a blast of that wind could knock him into the cliff like a paper toy. At the same time he couldn’t afford to be too careful. Five minutes was all he had. Five minutes before the explosive set by the Holiday Bomber would detonate.
Sweat beaded his forehead as he dangled hundreds of feet above the ground, his gaze searching the cold granite face of rock. Four minutes now. If Matt didn’t find the hurt climbers soon they’d all be blown to smithereens.
He was about to give up hope when he caught a glimpse of color, deep in a crevasse. Matt swung toward that color, counting down the seconds in his head, expertly adjusting his fit teenage muscles. Only three minutes now. His arms reached out to take hold of — what? Helpless woman, terrified child, wounded youth? He couldn’t see —
The sound of his bedroom door opening swept Matt from the edge of the cliff.
“Matt, aren’t you coming to dinner? I called you five minutes ago.”
Composing his face, Matt turned from the bedroom window. “Five minutes, already?” A rush of adrenaline still pulsed through him as he swiveled his wheelchair to face his sister. The expression on her face was quizzical.
Gee, it would be nice if people around here knocked before opening other people’s bedroom doors. Matt sighed, wheeling toward her. He was sixteen years old, after all. Didn’t he deserve a little privacy?
“Are you all right?” Kerrin put a hand to his forehead. “You look all flushed.”
“I’m fine.” Drawing his head out from under her palm, Matt flushed even more, hardly wanting her to guess what he’d been doing right before she’d horned in on him. If his older sister got an inkling of Matt’s secret fantasies, she’d be all over him to go back to physical therapy. Kerrin was a decade older than he was, but full of naïve delusions. She’d get a gooey look in her eyes and spout a lot of nonsense about how Matt could recover the use of his legs. She’d probably tell him he could become an Olympic star. Kerrin was completely crazy.
“I made spaghetti and meatballs,” his sister now informed Matt, leading the way down the hall.
Matt stifled a groan. “You made dinner?”
Kerrin turned around with a hurt expression. “Is there something wrong with that?”
Matt was too smart to answer. “What happened to Mom? She go into town?”
“Mom and Dad drove to Bishop. They’ve got one of their deep space meetings.”
Brother and sister exchanged a look. Matt grinned. “One has to admit, we’ve got the most interesting parents in town.”
“Out of this world,” Kerrin agreed. “Oh dear, I think that’s my garlic bread I smell burning.”
Still grinning, Matt watched her race down the hall, her tawny curls flying. All right, so she was completely hopeless in the kitchen, but she managed to mess up with a certain screwball charm. There was no reason on earth Kerrin should be adding ‘town spinster’ to the list of other town titles she’d begun to collect. Thoughtfully, he wheeled down the redwood panelled hall after her.
In the airy kitchen, the garlic bread smoked on the counter while Kerrin busily threw some spaghetti into a bowl. The resigned way the noodles fell told Matt Kerrin had managed to overcook them. She’d probably had her nose stuck in a book and forgotten to turn off the heat. The woman had two master’s degrees and ran the regional school district with the strategy and skill of a four-star general, but she couldn’t quite manage pasta.
She couldn’t handle living on her own, either, and though she claimed she preferred the company of her family to being alone, Matt suspected something else was going on. It was probably just as well. She would have starved.
Matt rolled to a position by the kitchen table. “Dad says you’re going to L.A. tomorrow.”
Kerrin started. Guiltily, Matt thought. “He told you that?” Her eyes avoided Matt’s as she brought the food to the table.
“Uh huh.” Matt watched as Kerrin attempted to dish him some sticky, and hence uncooperative, noodles. “But he wouldn’t tell me why you were driving two hundred miles to a place I know you loathe. So I figured — ” Matt paused, watching her face closely. She’d been touchy as a kitten all week. He had one guess why. “So I figured it must be a man.”
Kerrin choked and nearly dropped her load of noodles onto the Formica surface of the kitchen table. Matt could hardly believe his eyes as color rose to her cheeks.
“My God,” he exclaimed, astonished. “It is a man!”
“No!” Kerrin gave a determined shake to the serving ladle, and managed to divest it of clinging noodles. “It is not. That is — ” Her color deepened. “All right. I suppose he is male in gender, but it’s not what you think.”
“C’mon Ker.” Matt was grinning from ear to ear. “You can tell your own brother. Where did you meet?”
“We haven’t met — yet. And it’s not a date.” The thought seemed to make her flustered as all get out. “It’s…town business.”
A lie. All right, so Kerrin had been fool enough to let Ollie, the town’s auto mechanic, talk her into becoming mayor instead of him this year, but there was no possible ‘town business’ that could involve Los Angeles, two hundred miles to the southwest.
“Give,” Matt said.
“It’s an interview,” Kerrin elaborated. “I’m interviewing someone.”
Another lie. “Really? For what?”
Her green-gold eyes glanced toward him and then flitted away. “Summer school teacher.”
Matt stopped eating. He was so discomfited he didn’t even notice the faint, whispery tone of Kerrin’s answer, indicating a third lie. “Summer school?” he squeaked. “I thought the state wasn’t giving us any money for summer school.” In fact, he’d been counting on it.
“They aren’t.” Kerrin seemed to catch herself, and added, “That is, a special committee came up with the cash. We’re very lucky.”
“Right. Lucky.” Matt slammed his fork onto the table. “Forget it, Ker. I’m not going to summer school.”
The argument was familiar and Kerrin seized on it. Anything to change the subject from her trip to L.A. “Sure you are. By taking Health this summer you’ll have a free period to take Driver’s Ed in the fall.”
“Driver’s Ed? Are you crazy?”
“One way or another you’re going to be driving.”
His lips thinned and his golden eyes bore into her. Considering the fact that she’d just been lying her head off, Kerrin thought she handled the searching look well. Besides, Matt wasn’t trying to find out about the alleged summer school teacher any more. No, now he was intent on a different goal, the one he’d been pursuing for the past three years. He was trying to avoid spending time with able-bodied kids his own age.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” he said, his voice soft.
Kerrin gave him a guileless look as she forced some spaghetti into her mouth. “Get what?”
His straight mouth quirked into a smile. “Mom and Dad won’t make me.”
This was most certainly true, so Kerrin didn’t bother to refute it. “I suppose you have something better to do?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Matt grew a smug smile. “Private research.”
“Oh, brother. Not about that pyromaniac, Mr. Holiday?”
Matt raised his brows. “Mr. Holiday is not a pyromaniac. Pyros merely set things on fire. Blowing them up requires a great deal more sophistication.”
“And he takes photographs of his successes.” Matt picked up his fork and gamely shoved it into the noodles. “At the instant of explosion. I showed you the one of the dam on the Columbia River. He sent it to the AP wire service. Ballsy, huh?”
“If you say so.” Kerrin got up from the table, hoping Matt didn’t notice how little she’d eaten. She couldn’t eat when she was nervous, and nervous was a pale word for how she felt about her trip to L.A. tomorrow. Summer school teacher? Hardly. The man she was going to meet in L.A. was about as far as you could get from anyone Kerrin would hire to teach young minds.
At the sink Kerrin stopped and wondered, for the hundredth time, if she were doing the right thing even meeting the guy. For the hundredth time she closed her eyes and assured herself this was her only possible course.
Tomorrow she would meet the man and…she’d talk him out of taking the job in Freedom. He’d never even set foot in her town.
“Hey, Ker, you okay?”
She flinched. God, Matt was quick with that wheelchair. He’d slipped up right behind her.
“Fine,” she claimed. “I’m just fine.”
But Matt looked up at her, still concerned. “Because if you’re nervous about meeting this, er, summer school teacher, I could give you a few pointers.”
Not back to the summer school teacher. Buying time, Kerrin shook her hands free of water, then turned to give her brother a raised-eyebrow regard. “Could you, now?”
“Sure.” Matt’s concerned expression eased into a grin. “Hey, I’m a guy, aren’t I?”
“I told you, this is a job interview.” She barely stumbled over the lie this time. “It’s not about guys.” Matt had to be the only male in the world who thought Kerrin had a chance for romance in her life. Unfortunately, he thought so with single-minded determination.
“Right.” Matt rolled back half a wheel and looked down her slight figure. “But just pretending for a minute that it is about, ya know, guys, there’s a few things you could do. To encourage the fellow.”
A brief, harsh laugh escaped Kerrin and she quickly closed her mouth. The only thing she wanted to ‘encourage the fellow’ to do was leave them all alone.
Matt shook his head. “For starters, Ker, you could dress a little more…open. Like you’re not afraid to show your skin?”
“Ahem. Could I?”
“Hey.” Matt reached out to tap her jeans-clad knee. “It’s nice skin.”
“Thanks.” Nice skin. Well at least she had something going for her.
“Of course that skin could use some rounding out,” Matt went on, rubbing the chin he’d had to start shaving the year before. “How about some ice cream?”
“Sure. You didn’t eat much dinner, anyway, did you?”
So he’d noticed, after all. Kerrin bit the inside of her cheek and felt another stab of guilt, just as she had at the sink. Was it normal, she wondered, for the victim of blackmail to feel guilty? For she’d been blackmailed by those people in Los Angeles, pure and simple. “Okay, Matt, ice cream. But let’s take it outside. It’s hot in here.”
Pleased, Matt wheeled with practiced grace between the freezer and dish cabinets. Kerrin watched him and wondered how much longer the town was going to be safe for a kid in a wheelchair. No matter how agile and strong Matt kept himself, he’d still be vulnerable to a man with two legs. For that matter, everyone in town would be vulnerable, once that fellow from L.A. got here.
And Kerrin was the only person in town who’d know who he actually was, and the danger he presented.
“Come on.” Wheeling, Matt led the way outside.
On the porch, the air smelled of sage and pine and a little hot dust. From somewhere up the hill, where the sun still poked above the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, a bird called. But Kerrin looked down, toward the bottom of the valley.
“Here.” From his lap, Matt thrust a bowl at Kerrin. “Eat.”
Sighing, Kerrin accepted the bowl. She then sank to a seat on the wooden steps below Matt. Thinking about her meeting the next day, she gazed toward the valley and the Owens River.
Lazy, the Owens meandered between desert-dry banks until it hit the chunky concrete physical plant that straddled it, corralling the river into servitude. From there an aqueduct carried the water of the Owens Valley to a thirsty Los Angeles, two hundred miles away. The plant and the aqueduct beyond it were owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. They’d built it and they ran it.
It certainly was vulnerable. Kerrin had to admit it. If anything happened to that plant no water would go through to Los Angeles.
Matt licked his spoon and his gaze, too, fell to the bottom of the valley. “Say, wouldn’t this view be different if they’d never built the aqueduct?”
Kerrin froze, her hands cupping the cold ceramic bowl.
“There’d be fields down there instead of sagebrush,” he went on, oblivious to her stark silence. “By now Freedom would have become a big city, ‘stead of a rinky dink town.”
“But there is an aqueduct.” Kerrin’s voice was hoarse. She nodded toward the structure. “After ninety years we’ve come to depend on that thing.” Yes, at her meeting with them last week the mighty Department of Water and Power had made this clear to her. The economic life of Freedom depended on the fact that two hundred miles away Angelenos drank their water. If the DWP pulled out of the town, the jobs and money that came with their presence would likewise disappear.
Matt shrugged. “It’s not a natural relationship. Them dependent on us. Us on them.”
Kerrin could only agree, silently. But such dependency was already a fact of life in Freedom. If the DWP wanted to send an “expert” in security systems to check out the safety of their facility, there was little the town mayor could do to stop them. No, not even when that “expert” was an expert at evading security systems!
All Kerrin had been able to wrangle was a meeting with the man. All she could hope was that this meeting would convince him not to take the job, not to come to her town.
“Aw, Kerrin, you haven’t taken a single bite.”
Kerrin looked down at her untouched Rocky Road, then up at Matt. He looked so frustrated that she forced a spoonful of the sweet stuff into her mouth. Her eyes searched his to give her credit.
“How are you ever going to get a guy?” Matt lamented.
“I don’t know.” Kerrin swallowed her bite of ice cream. “It’ll take a miracle, probably.”
“And knowing you, you probably believe that one will happen, too. A miracle.”
A smile started at one corner of her mouth. “It might.” She was counting on it.
“Like some knight on a white charger is going to come and sweep you up off your feet.”
“Maybe.” She was sure of it.
Matt’s face expressed disgust as only a male of sixteen years could manage. “And that’s about what it would take,” he pronounced. “A white knight.”
“No doubt.” In fact, Kerrin couldn’t agree more. It would take a full-blown white knight to brave the dragons that scared off all other men, an armored hero to breach the wall of her defenses. But that such a man existed Kerrin didn’t doubt.
For him she wouldn’t be too smart or too skinny. To her white knight it wouldn’t matter that Kerrin had three college degrees, that she actually wanted to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere or that, worst of all, she was a complete dunce in all things physical. No, Kerrin didn’t know his name or point of origin, his profession or his age, but she knew that one day he would come for her. And he would be…perfect.
Kerrin’s dreamy gaze roved over the majestic natural landscape. From somewhere out there he would come.
And then, unfortunately for her daydream, her eyes tripped over the concrete aqueduct. Far more immediate problems came crashing back to mind. The DWP, that man, the town. Kerrin closed her eyes and tried not to moan.
It didn’t matter. Her white knight was still on his way. She’d believe that through every trial and tribulation. He would come.
Though it sure would be nice, Kerrin thought, if he’d choose to come soon.
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