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From the moment he got off the bus, Dell Blackfeather knew coming home was a mistake. Several of the old timers in the combination bus station and café glared at him when he walked in. He ignored them and called the only family he had left, his cousin Mike, to come and get him, then went back outside to wait.
Dell leaned against the streetlight pole by the café door and did his best to ignore the gawkers that slowed to stare as they passed. The crawling feeling between his shoulder blades told him the occupants of the café were also watching him. Well, he'd be out of this place as soon as he got his things from Mike.
The sound of a car stopping made him look up. He watched Sheriff Many Hats get out of the cruiser and walk toward him.
"Thought you were locked up," Many Hats said.
"They let me go," Dell answered.
"Hard to believe, boy."
"DNA proved I didn't do it. And Elsie's diary," Dell said.
"People ain't gonna take too well to you coming back here," Many Hats said, a warning note in his voice.
"Well, I'm not staying around this sorry town, so they can relax. Soon as I get my truck I'm gone." He saw Mike coming finally and stepped away from the pole.
Mike stopped the old truck, and Dell walked toward it.
"I ain't done talking to you, boy," Many Hats said.
"Yeah, well, I'm done talking to you." Dell opened the passenger door and climbed into the truck.
He and his cousin rode in silence until they'd left the town far behind.
"You plan on staying?" Mike asked.
"Not if I can help it. I'm just here long enough to get my stuff, and then I'm gone."
"Probably a goodidea."
The house was pretty much like he'd last seen it, and Dell didn't waste any time collecting his things and loading the boxes into his old red truck. They couldn't pay him enough to stay in this little town full of holier-than-thou hypocrites.
As he drove down the highway away from the town he'd grown up in and everything he'd known, Dell felt a lightness come over him. He flicked ash from his cigarette out the open window and stuck it back between his full lips before running his hand through his shaggy, collar length, jet-black hair and sighing. All he owned in the world was in the bed of the truck; he had nothing tying him to anything and the whole world at his feet.
He had learned a few lessons from the past five years. He'd be a lot less trusting in the future, especially with guys like Wilson Long. And he would definitely think twice, and maybe even three times, about hooking up with another bitch like Elsie. How he could have been fooled into thinking she had cared for anyone but herself he'd never understand.
Dell sighed. A memory of Elsie on the stand at his trial flashed through his head. She'd given an Academy Award-worthy performance, convincing the jury that he had shot his best friend when Tommy had caught Dell trying to force himself on her. When his lawyer asked about Wilson, she'd denied he even existed.
Lighting another cigarette, he relaxed even further. It felt good to put the past and prison behind him. A year of jail for the trial and four years of prison for a murder he didn't commit had given him a lot of time to think and an incentive to start a new life somewhere far away.
Two steady days of uneventful driving saw him pulling into the parking lot of a truck stop just off the highway in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was sunny and warm, and the day promised to get a lot hotter in a few hours. He stood at the pump, putting gas in his truck, the summer breeze catching the tail of his blue plaid shirt and flipping it around.
A car pulled up to the pump behind him, and he watched the driver get out and walk into the building. She wore faded blue jeans that molded to her body just right and an old gray tank top that sent a definite signal straight to his groin. Her light brown hair was pinned up with a plastic clip that sparkled in the sun.
Dell entertained a brief fantasy involving bending her over the hood of her compact car. The idea of taking that soft and shiny looking hair down and wrapping his hands in it while he drove himself into her had his jeans becoming uncomfortable. He coughed and, glancing around quickly and swallowing hard, he pulled his black felt cowboy hat down and adjusted himself.
The woman returned to her small car and started to put gas in it. He smiled and nodded. She met his eyes, and he noticed hers were green. His gas quit pumping, and he walked inside to pay and buy a pack of cigarettes. When he came back out, she was gone in her little blue car. Too bad, he wouldn't have minded a visit to the truck stop's motel. She was small, probably wouldn't come up to the middle of his chest, but the woman had a fine butt. And it had, after all, been five long, lonely years. He got in his truck and pulled back out on the highway.
Alison stopped to get gas and watched the man at the pump ahead of her nervously from the corner of her eye. He was nice-looking, with straight, coal black hair that just brushed his collar, and his jeans and blue plaid shirt showcased his fit, hard body. Aside from his good looks, he seemed ordinary, sturdy, tall. Nothing at all like Ryan with his designer suits and carefully styled hair. She ignored the slow burn low in her stomach and didn't return the smile he gave her. She left while he was inside. Last thing she needed was another man, even one as beautiful as this one.
She watched the long, straight road and caught herself replaying her reason for being there. The steady drone of the tires on the hot asphalt and the broken dividing line put her in a light hypnotic trance, transporting her back to Los Angeles.
Tears blurred her vision as she hurried out to her car. Coming home to find her very proper and stuffy husband in bed with America's favorite TV super mom had been a nasty shock.
Ryan stood in the door of their Mission style mansion. "You leave now, Alison, and you can forget about ever coming back," he shouted.
She started the car and threw it into reverse with a bitter laugh that turned into a sob, leaving everything behind. As if she would stay in the same house with him and that woman.
Sniffing, she chuckled grimly and wiped the tears from her eyes at the memory. "You sure know how to pick them," she said to herself. One thing was certain; she was done with the prim and proper lifestyle her ex-husband had insisted on. Ryan hadn't even let the ink dry on the divorce papers before he had jetted off to Las Vegas and married his actress.
An hour and a half out of Flagstaff, Alison's car began to make a strange knocking sound, snapping her out of her remembrances. All the gauges and warning lights were going crazy on the dash panel.
"No, no, no," she moaned and began pulling onto the shoulder. As soon as she began to slow down, vile-smelling black smoke began pouring into the car.
She skidded to a stop, and flames burst out from under the hood. She grabbed her purse, jumping out with her keys in her hand. For some insane reason, she popped the trunk and took the time to grab her two small suitcases just as the flames ran down the undercarriage of the car and reached the nearly full gas tank.
The explosion knocked her down as she ran from the car, bits of burning debris spattering the ground around her and peppering her back. She landed on her bags, popping one open and spilling clothes onto the dirt. Yelping, she covered her head and cringed as several large pieces of debris rained down around her.