Port Flannery is a harbor town off the coast of Washington state—quiet, picturesque, and just big enough to hide in for a while. At least that’s what Emma Sands hopes when she takes a room above the local cafe. Here, no one knows why Emma and her young daughter fled New Orleans. No one can guess how terrified she is that the danger they left behind is drawing nearer every day.
Emma is right to be scared. Even as she finds new friends and an unexpected ally in the rugged, compelling Sheriff Donnelly, it’s only a matter of time before her old life catches up. Because the obsession that drove her from the Big Easy will track her down, even in a place as Port Flannery. And this time, there will be nowhere left to run . . .
“Susan Andersen keeps on delivering captivating and thrilling novels of dangerous love and dark suspense.” —RT Book Reviews
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Emma swore softly. Wonderful. She couldn't have found a lousier place for the car to begin acting up if she'd tried. She'd just driven off the Washington State ferry ten minutes ago, and following a mixup at the terminal, she'd disembarked on an island instead of the mainland destination one stop farther on. She didn't know if this small island even boasted a real town, let alone a garage with a certified mechanic. The engine noise grew louder and Emma feared they wouldn't make it over the next rise..
"McDonald's?" Gracie requested hopefully from the car seat next to her. She appeared oblivious to the horrendous racket the car was making.
"I don't imagine they have a McDonald's here, angel pie," Emma replied. She reached over and stroked a gentle finger down her daughter's cheek, giving her a soft smile. "I'll find us some place to eat, though." Or so she fervently hoped.
What she found was a picturesque town called Port Flannery, built on two levels around a harbor and attractive even in the gray light cast by a low ceiling of clouds that looked ready to open up and dump their contents at any moment. The tide was low and down on the bay was a boathouse and dock, a gas station, general store, several specialty shops, and a tavern. Up above was a town square, around which was built a town hall and the rest of the business section, including, thank goodness, Bill's Garage. Emma coasted the Chevrolet to a halt in front of the garage doors.
"So you say she's been runnin' rough, huh?" a man in greasy overalls with Bill embroidered above the chest pocket asked her a few moments later. He wiped his hands on an oily rag and then leaned over the engine once again.
"Running very rough," Emma confirmed. "And the engine's making a lot of noise. I think there's —"
"Now, don't you worry your pretty little head about it," he interrupted in a condescending tone that made the short hairs on the back of Emma's neck stand on end. She opened her mouth to cut him off at the knees but Gracie chose that moment to start squirming in her arms.
"Hungwy, Maman," she insisted querulously and drummed her feet against Emma's thigh.
Bill raised his eyes as far as Emma's breasts. "There's a cafe across the square," he informed them helpfully. "You go get your little girl something to eat and I'll have a better idea what's wrong with your car by the time you get back."
Emma gritted her teeth. She was tempted to impart a few home truths guaranteed to make Bill's ears ring, but Gracie was wriggling and demanding to be let down, and her own stomach was growling, so, swallowing a sigh, she let it pass. She set Gracie on her feet and took her hand. Moments later they were crossing the grassy square and climbing the porch steps of a large clapboard establishment. Red neon script above the navy-checked cafe curtains in the front window spelled out Ruby's Cafe.
By the time they walked out again, Emma was feeling a hundred percent better. Amazing, she marveled, what a hot meal could do for a woman. But it wasn't merely that; in addition to filling up on food that tasted like honest-to-goodness home cooking, she and Gracie now had a place to stay. Ruby's was a boarding house as well as a cafe, with big, spacious rooms to let upstairs. Emma had rented one overlooking the square.
The shortest lease Ruby was willing to accept for one of her rooms was a nonnegotiable week — cash in advance — but that was all right with Emma. She was tired of being on the run and she was sick to death of living out of suitcases. It would be a luxury to be able to unpack and stay put for a few days. Sooner or later she had to stop somewhere anyhow, didn't she? Not to mention that with breakfast and dinner included in the rent, this was definitely cheaper than paying by the day at a motel, even cut-rate motels. So what the heck — why not here? It was an excellent, well-thought-out decision.
And one that, not five minutes later, she had cause to regret.
Sandy, the dispatcher, stuck her head into the sheriff's office. "Elvis, you better get on over to Bill's Garage," she said. "Some off-islander with an old car is over there raising Cain, and she's drawin' a crowd."
Elvis swore under his breath and headed for the door. Damn that Bill; he'd warned him before about his habit of padding the bill.
Sandy hadn't exaggerated; there was a small crowd bunched up in the doorway that separated the office from the garage bay. Most moved aside without speaking to him when Elvis appeared, but his friend Sam was there and he turned and gave him a grin. "Almost hate to see you break it up, Donnelly," he said. "This woman's good. Worth the admission at twice the price."
The car was the first thing Elvis noticed and he nearly choked. Jesus, Sandy, he thought, an old car? It was a classic '57 Chevy in mint condition, and Elvis would have happily ignored the argument raging over by the pit in favor of going over the thing from stem to stern with a fine-tooth comb ... except by then he'd seen the woman, and both she and her argument were impossible to ignore.
His first impression was of a big blonde with a voice like molasses and a body built to stop traffic. Looking more closely, he realized she wasn't actually a true blonde. Her hair was more caramel colored, kind of a warm goldy-brown, but it had dozens of flaxen streaks that gave it the blond appearance. Elvis' massive shoulders twitched. Hell, close enough. If it walked like a blonde and talked like a blonde ...
And the body was still built to stop traffic. She had a little girl riding her Levi's-clad hip, and he didn't think he was the only man in that garage who couldn't quite tear his eyes away from the chubby little dimpled hand that moved up and down the T-shirt covered, centerfold thrust of her mother's breast. "Itsy, bitsy spi doo," the child sang beneath her mother's harangue, little fingers pressing into the fullness. "Went up the water spout."
"... lowlife, cheatin' thief," the woman was saying when he tore his attention back to the business at hand, and even in the midst of reaming Bill out, he noticed, her voice evoked images of sultry, magnolia scented, Southern nights. " Where'd you get your license, cher — from a Cracker Jack box?"
"Listen, you bitch," Bill snarled back with his usual inimitable charm, and Elvis' eyebrows snapped together.
He stepped forward. "What's goin' on, here?"
Emma's head swung around and she found herself gaping speechlessly for an instant. Standing in the doorway, a small island of space separating him from the rest of the gawkers, stood one of the largest men she'd ever seen in her life. He must have been six feet, six inches tall and probably weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred thirty pounds, all of it solid, khaki- and levi's-covered muscle. But it wasn't simply his size that caused her to stare. It was the sternness of his expression. It was the fact that his left arm ended in an artificial limb with a metal clip-style hook where his hand should have been, and that a wicked raised scar zigzagged across his left cheek like an inch-and-a-half-long lightning bolt, pointing to his full lower lip where it ended at the outside corner.
She grew aware of Gracie growing quiet against her. The child's head lowered to nestle against Emma's breast and her thumb crept into her mouth. Emma glanced down and saw her daughter staring wide-eyed at the unsmiling man across the room, big brown eyes fastened on the angry red scar on his face. "Owie," she whispered around her thumb. It shook Emma from her reverie and she smiled slightly, pressing a kiss against her daughter's soft curls.
"I'll tell you what's goin' on," she said firmly and crossed the garage to stand directly in front of the gigantic man. Her head tilted back so she might look directly in his startling blue eyes. "I'm pretty sure I had a piece of carbon break loose and start hittin' the top of the piston," she said. "So I came in here to get it flushed out. But did this idiot —" She gestured expressively at Bill Gertz. "— squirt a bit of water in the cylinders or give it a bit of combustion cleaner to eat it up? Oh no, cher." Her brown eyes flashed fire, and Elvis found himself taking a step closer. "No, he decides a rod bearing has come loose. A rod bearing! He can't show me this loose rod bearing, you understand, but I'm not supposed to worry my pretty little head about it!" She all but spat those last words out. "But, no. I mustn't do that. We're only talkin' about hundreds of dollars difference in the damn bill."
"Where did you learn so much about cars, miss?" Elvis inquired curiously, for it was clear that Bill had made a major miscalculation with this one. She knew exactly what she was talking about.
She met his eyes dead on. "From my brother, cher. Big Eddy Robescheaux ran the slickest chop shop in all of N'Awlins, maybe in all of Lou'siana. He and I — well, we were all the other had for years and years. I grew up in that shop. I could hardly help but pick up some pointers."
"Chop shops are illegal, Miss Robescheaux."
"Sands," she corrected him. "Robescheaux was my maiden name."
Elvis, aware of a fierce disappointment, gave himself a sharp mental shake. As if a babe like this one would ever give an ugly sonofabitch like him a second glance anyway.
"And I know they're illegal, cher," she continued softly, a sadness creeping into her eyes. "They closed Big Eddy down, and he died in prison just before he was slated to be released." She sucked on her full bottom lip for a moment, then slowly let it slide through her teeth. That period of time surrounding Eddy's incarceration and death tied together with the beginning of her association with Grant Woodard ... but that was another story and not something this man needed to know.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Sands."
"Oh, call me Emma, cher. And you are ...?"
"Hey, do the two of you friggin' well mind?" Bill interrupted in disgust. "What is this, the Sunday fuckin' social? Don't be taken in by a sweet pair of tits, Elvis."
"Elvis?" Emma questioned, blinking up at him. Gracie yawned around her thumb and started finger-walking her free hand up and down her mother's breast again. "Itsy, bitsy spi doo ..."
Elvis shrugged his massive shoulders uncomfortably. "My mother's a big fan of the King," he explained. Then, his expression hardening, he turned to Bill. "I'll tell you what, Bill, why don't you leave the lady's anatomy out of it and just flush out her cylinders like she wants."
"The hell you say! It's a friggin' rod bearing, I'm tellin' ya!"
"Then you have nothing to worry about, do you? Of course, if the problem clears up the way Mrs. Sands here seems to think it will, she'll have to make a decision about pressing charges against you for fraud. If you prove correct, however, I'm sure she'll give you a nice, big, public apology."
"Oh, on my knees, cher," Emma assured the enraged mechanic.
"Yeah? Well, while you're down there why don't you suck my big red di —"
Never in her life had Emma seen a man so large move so fast. Before the mechanic could complete his indecent suggestion, Elvis Donnelly was across the space separating them and his hook had flashed out to open and then close around the button placket at the collar of the man's greasy striped overalls. It lifted, bringing Bill up onto his toes.
"This isn't the first complaint I've had about the way you run this business," Donnelly said in a low, intense voice, bending his head to bring his face close to the mechanic's. "But it damn well better be the last, Gertz, or I'm going to shut your operation down so fast it'll make your head spin. Now, I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head until your business is concluded. Get your mind out of the gutter and your butt in gear." Straightening, he allowed the hook to open up, releasing the fabric, and permitting Bill to settle back onto his heels.
Straightening his collar, Gertz stretched his neck first to the left and then to the right. "Well, big surprise that you'd take the side of a whore, Donnelly," he spat out, but took a hasty step backward at the look in the sheriff's blue eyes.
"Excuse me?" Insulted right down to her fingertips, Emma stepped without thought in front of the big law officer. It never occurred to her to let him handle the slur to her name; she was accustomed to fighting her own battles. Drawing up to her full height of five feet, nine and three-quarter inches, Emma faced the mechanic squarely.
"How would you like to find your scraggly little rear end in a court of law defendin' against a slander suit?" she demanded in a low but combative voice. Her brown eyes, boring into his, burned with outrage. "I've been in this town less than two hours and y'all don't know me from Adam, sir, so where do you get off castin' aspersions on my virtue?" Taking a deep breath, Emma felt her shoulders brush against the sheriff's chest, and she was curiously tempted for about two seconds to lean back and let it support her weight.
How ridiculous. She stood taller, blowing out an impatient little breath. "Legally, you're already treadin' a thin line here with my car," she informed Gertz coolly and then warned the belligerent mechanic, "I'd take heed if I were you, Mistah Bill Whoever-the-devil-you-are, because I'm tellin' you right now as clearly as I possibly can. If I hear one more obscenity uttered in front of my baby, we won't be talkin' a nickel-dime-let's-settle-out-of-court lawsuit. I'll go out and hire myself the biggest legal gun this side of the Mississippi Rivah and y'all can bank on the fact that we won't rest until this sorry little garage is mine!" She gave her surroundings a disparaging glance, then met the mechanic's eyes levelly once again. "The place is obviously in need of somebody who knows how to run it right."
That's when she ran out of steam. Yeah, sure, Em, she thought with derision. Big Talk. As if she'd dare do anything that would draw attention to her and Gracie's whereabouts. But she neither blinked nor looked away from Bill Gertz's stare. She'd learned to bluff at a tender age and no crooked little backwater mechanic was going to jerk Emma Robescheaux Sands around. Or call her slanderous names in front of her child.
"Maman?" Gracie tugged on her mother's hair to get her attention. When Emma looked down, her daughter asked uncertainly, "We go bye-bye now?"
"Soon, angel pie." Emma dipped her head to kiss the child's chubby neck. Rubbing her hand gently through Gracie's curls, she raised cold and level eyes to meet the mechanic's gaze once again. "So, what's it gonna be, Mistah Gertz?"
Believing every word she'd said, he looked around, wishing to hell he'd never started this whole sorry mess. But who the hell woulda expected a woman — especially a woman who looked like this one — to know so much about cars? Conning unattached females had always worked just fine for him in the past.
Gauging the mood of the crowd, he could see there would be no help for him there. Most of those gathered might have little use for Elvis Donnelly socially, but they did respect him professionally. And Bill could see it had been a tactical error on his part to make crude remarks to a young woman who held a dimpled little angel in her arms. Shit. There was no help for it.
"I'll flush your damn cylinders," he muttered ungraciously. What the hell; he'd bluff his way out of this, then the woman would probably hit the highway and he'd never have to see her again. By this time next week no one would even remember he'd tried to cheat her. Except maybe Elvis Donnelly.
And who the hell cared about him?
Emma was wrung out by the time her car was once again in her possession and she'd driven it around the square to the small parking lot behind Ruby's boarding house. After spearing the mechanic with a contemptuous gaze one final time and garnering that unsmiling nod in exchange for the thank you she'd given the big sheriff for his assistance, she would have loved nothing better than to clear out of town. Unfortunately, she couldn't afford to do that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Exposure"
Copyright © 1996 Susan Andersen.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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