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Christine Rimmer New York Time Bestselling Author
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Christine Rimmer - New York Times Bestselling Author

The Stranger and Tessa Jones

Chapter One
by Christine Rimmer

“More snow on the way.” The truck driver, a fifty-something guy in insulated pants and a plaid flannel shirt, fiddled with the radio dial.

The man in the passenger seat made a low sound in his throat, a sound of agreement that discouraged further conversation. He had a killer headache. Talking only made it ache all the harder. And he kept smelling alcohol.

He sniffed the sleeve of his jacket. Definitely. Booze. Was he drunk? He didn’t feel drunk, exactly. He just felt bad. Bad all over.

The two-lane road, dangerously slick in spots, treated with road salt and dotted with slushy ridges of brown snow, twisted and turned down the mountain. Piled snow, hard-packed and dirty, rose in twin walls to either side, so the big rig seemed to roll through a dingy white tunnel, a tunnel rimmed above with evergreens and roofed higher still by a steel-colored sky.

The passenger shut his eyes, tuned out the drone of the radio and leaned his pounding head against the seatback. For a while, he dozed. When he opened his eyes again, the walls of snow on either side had diminished. He spotted a sign that said this road was Scenic Highway 49.

With a hydraulic moan and hiss, the trucker slowed the rig as they came to a sharp turn. Another turn after that and they were slowing even more.

They passed an intersection, a road winding off into the tall trees, and then another. The passenger read the street sign at that second road: Rambling Lane. And Main Street. They were on Main Street. The two-lane highway had now become the central street of some hole-in-the-wall town.

Another turn in the road and they were rolling past a town hall and a one-room post office on the right. On the left, a café and a mountain bike shop and a store called Fletcher Gold Sales, followed by a couple of tourist-trap gift shops. The place was like something out of an old Western movie—or maybe, thought the passenger, like a small town in Texas, except with everything crowded together and tall mountains all around.

Texas. The passenger frowned. Am I from Texas? No answer came to him. His head pounded harder.

“Welcome to North Magdalene, California, population two-thirty on a very busy day,” said the driver, as he pulled the rig into a parking lot across from a restaurant called The Mercantile Grill, which was next-door to bar fittingly named The Hole in the Wall. The hydraulic brakes sighed as they rolled to a stop in a long space surrounded by piles of gray snow. The driver flipped levers and worked the big gear shift. Finally, the huge truck was silent. “It’s lunch time and I skipped breakfast.” The trucker scratched his chin. “I’m heading up the street to the café, get a quick burger to go, fill my Thermos. Then I’m on to Grass Valley. I figure, just a little bit of luck and I’ll make it before the road shuts down.”

The passenger frowned. “Shuts down?”

The driver reminded him, “More snow comin’, remember? Weatherman said the storm on the way’s gonna be a doozy. Hungry?”

The passenger winced and touched the wound on his forehead. “Uh. Thanks. No.”

The trucker shook his head. “Listen. I never like to mess in a man’s business, but you don’t look so good. There’s a clinic a few miles from here. Come on with me to the café, I’ll find someone to run you on over there and—”

“No.” The passenger put up a hand, not sure why he didn’t want to see a doctor—not sure of anything, really. Except that he wished his head would stop pounding and he really hoped he didn’t throw up. “Thanks. I’ll get off here.” He leaned on the door and it opened. Icy air flowed in around him. He swung his legs over and jumped to the frozen blacktop, slipping in his smooth-soled boots—but catching himself in time to stay upright.

The trucker tried again to offer aid. “I got an extra coat in the back.” He was leaning across the seat. “Let me get it for—”

“I’m fine. Thanks.” The man shut the door on the driver and turned toward the sidewalk, not caring that he was headed back the way he’d come. It seemed as good a direction as any right then. Behind him, he heard the driver’s door open and slam shut, but the trucker didn’t call to him.

Good. The man flipped up the collar of his lightweight jacket, hunched down into it for what warmth it could provide, stuck his hands in his pockets and concentrated on crossing the ice-slick parking lot without landing on his ass.

He made it. The sidewalk, beneath the old-timey wooden cover, was dry. He walked faster, keeping his eyes focused downward, careful not to make eye contact with the few bundled-up people he passed. His headache beat a jarring accompaniment to each step he took and his stomach roiled.

Too soon, he was leaving the gift shops and the bike store behind, emerging from under the sidewalk cover and into the open. Now, he was unprotected from the punishing wind that blew against his face like frozen needles and quickly penetrated the thin fabric of his jacket and his slacks. He had to watch every step. The boots he looked down on were expensive. But they weren’t made for trekking along the side of an icy road. His feet were cold and getting wet, his toes like lumps of ice. His body ached, in a whole bunch of different places. Like he’d taken a serious beating. His tan slacks were torn at the knees, the fabric bloody from cuts beneath. And his jacket not only stank of booze, it was streaked with black marks that might have been grease or oil or maybe plain dirt. It had a rip down one side.

Whatever the hell had happened to him, it must have been bad.

The occasional pickup or SUV went past. Sometimes the drivers honked. The man had a feeling if he’d signaled one of them, they would have stopped.

But then there would be talking. And questions. The man didn’t want any questions. After all, he had no answers. Questions made his head hurt worse. They were black holes he might fall into and never get out.

He forged on, passing Rambling Lane again. When he reached that other tree-shaded road farther up, he stood for a moment staring blankly at the street sign: Locust Street. With a shrug he started down it, thinking that it might be warmer within the relative protection of the evergreens.

It wasn’t. The trees cut the wind, yes, but the shadowed spaces beneath the spreading branches seemed colder, somehow, than the open road. A cold that seeped into his bones.

What the hell was he doing? How had he gotten here?

He no sooner thought the questions than the pain in his head bloomed into agony. His breath hissed in and out through his clenched teeth. “No questions,” he chanted in a whisper. “No answers. Don’t ask…”

Wallet.

The word came into his mind and he paused on the shadowed, snow-drifted road. Of course. If he had a wallet, he might learn his name, at least. And where he lived….

Hope rising, he felt in his pockets with numb fingers. First in the jacket, then in the back pockets of his pants….

Nothing.

He even unzipped the jacket to look for a hidden pocket. There was one. Too bad it was as empty as the others. He saw the soft sweater he wore. It was streaked with grime like the jacket. Blue. The right word for what the sweater was made of came to him: cashmere.

Expensive, he thought, zipping back up again. He had that gash on his forehead and various other bruises and scrapes. And no wallet. No watch or rings, either. No jewelry of any kind. His clothes were the best quality, but all wrong for a frozen winter day high in the mountains.

California, the truck driver had said. He was in California. In the mountains.

The Sierras, he thought, and almost smiled. Though the pain in his head continued, it didn’t instantly jump to a screaming throb. I’m in the Sierra Mountains of California, in or near a town called North Magdalene.

“Could be worse,” he mumbled. “I could be dead…” That struck him as funny, for some unknown reason. He started to laugh.

But then the ice-pick jabs of pain attacked his head again. His stomach lurched and rolled. He bent at the knees, braced his hands on his thighs and sucked in air, blowing it out hard, in steaming puffs, willing the agony in his head to fade down to an aching throb and his stomach to stop churning.

A sudden image filled his mind: Early morning. Cold. Astride a horse that chuffed and shook a dark mane. High desert prairie stretched out around him, shadowed but for the slender ribbon of orange sun at the horizon. Someone beside him, also on horseback. He turned to look and see who it was…

The image vanished.

He closed his eyes and let out a low moan as he forced himself to rise from his crouch. The pain, which came in waves that swelled and diminished, was backing off again and his stomach had settled down. He lifted his face to the dark trees overhead.

Snow. As the truck driver had predicted. On his cheeks. His brows. His eyelids. He opened his eyes. Yes. Snowing. Hard enough now that it even found its way through the dense canopy of evergreen above his head.

And the wind was picking up, rustling the branches of the trees, making high-pitched moaning sounds. He started walking again, putting his head down, doggedly, into the wind, staggering a little in the deepening drifts, pondering the idea that he was probably going to die and just cold and miserable and hurting enough that death was starting to seem like a welcome relief.

But then, out of nowhere, he heard the strangest sound. He paused in mid-stride and cocked his head, listening, not sure if the sound was inside his head.

But no. There it came again—something shattering. Pottery or glass or…dishes.

Someone was breaking dishes? Deep in the Sierras in the middle of a snowstorm?

The white flakes whirled around him. And then he heard a voice.

“Bill. How could you?” A woman’s voice. Another dish exploded. And another after that. “I hate you, Bill. You lied to me…” More dinnerware crashed against what was probably the trunk of a tree.

Forgetting for the moment about encroaching death, almost certain he must be losing what remained of his mind, he left the road to forge into the trees and get closer to the bizarre sounds. It seemed crucial, for some reason, to see for himself if there was really a woman out here in the middle of nowhere, a woman throwing dishes and ranting at some guy named Bill.

Not far into the trees, he stopped. Maybe thirty yards from where he stood, the trees ended in a clearing. At the far edge of the clear space, he saw a small, wood-sided house with a steep, red tin roof, smoke spiraling skyward from a gray metal chimney pipe. He sniffed. The smell of woodsmoke came to him sharply. He should have noticed it before.

And there really was a woman. She was alone, as far as he could tell, and standing at a point about midway between the edge of the trees and the house. No sign of the guy she was yelling at. Just her and a big box of dishes near her snow-booted feet, and her target: a broad-trunked cedar tree.

Littering the fallen snow at the base of the tree were a thousand shards of broken pottery in a variety of bright colors, all swiftly being buried by the increasingly heavy fall of new snow.

Sudden dizziness assailed the man, accompanied by another bout of powerful nausea. He braced himself against the nearest tree. Blinking to clear his head, gulping to keep from hurling whatever he had in his stomach onto the pure, white snow, he focused on the woman.

She was tall. A big woman. Not fat, but…sturdy. Probably in her twenties. She wore a purple quilted jacket and a striped knit hat with a pom-pom on top. Tendrils of blond hair escaped from under the hat, clinging to her red cheeks and bunching at her collar. Beside her, the cardboard box held plenty more dishes where the ones she’d thrown had come from. They were all different colors, those dishes. A rainbow of dinnerware waiting at her feet.

As he gulped down his nausea and blinked to try and clear the dizziness, she bent and grabbed up a plate the color of a sunflower. “You jerk!” She growled the words low in her throat. For a moment, he was sure she must be talking to him. But no. She stared into the middle distance, totally unaware of him. Crash. He winced as the plate hit the target and yellow shards went flying. She bent for another. “You promised. Promised.” She tossed a purple soup bowl. It found its mark and exploded. She grabbed two plates—turquoise and light green—one in either hand. “You said you’d be here for the wedding, Bill. I told everyone—everyone—that you were coming.”

She fired one plate and then the other, so fast the second hit the first. Bits of pottery flew in all directions.

“But no,” she growled. “Oh, no. You couldn’t just come to North Magdalene the way you always promised you would. Uh-uh. Instead, you took a little trip to Vegas to try your luck. Vegas…” A dark blue cup and a shamrock-green saucer met their end. “You fell in love with a showgirl. And she fell in love with you. A showgirl? You?” Another plate flew and shattered. The man in the trees knew he shouldn’t be hearing all this. He should show himself or go. But he did neither. He held onto a tree trunk to keep from passing out as the big blonde in the clearing continued to rail at a guy who wasn’t there. “Tell me, Bill. How does a skinny tour bus driver with a space between his teeth, a guy too shy to string more than two sentences together in the presence of a woman, end up married to a showgirl? You tell me, Bill Toomey. How does that happen?” She fired three bread plates—white, black and orange—in swift succession.

As soon as the last one hit, she went on, “Especially when last September you swore, Bill, you swore with all your heart that you loved me.” She threw a pink serving bowl. “Me, Bill.” The snow swirled around her and the pom-pom on her hat bounced in sympathetic fury. The hair that curled along her cheeks blew across her eyes. She swiped it away and bent to grab more ammunition. “You swore you loved me and wanted only to spend your life at my side…” A cardinal-red dish met a crashing fate.

The man in the trees was frowning. He muttered, “Another damn drama queen,” and wondered a second later why he’d said that.

And then he stepped forward, though some remnant of a survival instinct within him cautioned that it was unwise to approach a furious woman with a box full of dinnerware and an excellent throwing arm. She might choose him as her next target.

He walked toward her anyway, slowly at first and then faster, as the snow came down harder and the wind whistled in the branches of the tall, green trees. In seconds, as dishes continued to shatter and the big blonde with the bobbing pom-pom went on telling off some guy named Bill, he emerged from the shelter of the pines.

She’d just tossed a serving platter when she spotted him. A yelp of surprise escaped her. “What the…?” She reached into the box and came out with a second big platter. She waved it, a threat. “Stop. Don’t come one step closer.”

He kept coming. The platter was big and heavy-looking. If she hit him with it, it would probably make his headache a whole lot worse. But somehow, he couldn’t stop moving toward her. “I need…I…Please…”

She raised the platter higher. “Final warning. Stop right there.”

He croaked, “Don’t…” as in his head a thousand bells began to ring. “Don’t…” He put his hands over his ears, a move he knew to be pointless. There was no protecting his ears from the ringing. It was coming from inside his head. And the ice pick was stabbing in there again. He groaned as he felt himself slowly dropping to the ground.

It took forever to get there. It seemed to him that, as the ice pick stabbed and stabbed again, and the thousand bells kept pealing, he drifted downward—floating, like a leaf or maybe a feather.

Then, after forever, he found himself on his back in a thick drift of snow. He stared up at the gray sky, or tried to. But the snow was falling so hard by then, it was difficult to see more than a few feet above his face. The cold white flakes caught on his eyelashes. He blinked them away. The bells had gone silent. The ice pick had stopped its stabbing. A sigh of sweet relief escaped him.

Someone was beside him in the snow. The blonde. She was on her knees, looking down at him, bending closer. Her nose was as red as her cheeks with the cold. She smelled good. Fresh. Clean. Her breath, across his face, was warm and sweet.

As if it had happened long ago, he recalled her fury and the shattering dishes, the way she’d told off that tour bus driver named Bill. Now she wasn’t angry, though. Now she just looked worried.

Worried and…kind. He thought, She’s good. A good woman. I could use a good woman in my life.

Whatever his life was…

A hell of a mess he was in here, on his back in a blizzard, without a name, without any idea of who he was or where he’d come from, dressed for a much warmer place than the Sierras in a snowstorm.

She touched him, laying her mittened hand on the side of his face. He felt the warmth of her through the wool. “I’m sorry…”

He frowned at her. “Sorry?”

“For threatening you with that platter.”

“Oh, that. ‘S’nothing.”

“I should have seen you were hurt. But you came out of nowhere…”

“Didn’t mean…scare you…” His lips felt strange and thick. They didn’t want to talk.

“I’ll call and get help.” She started to rise.

He grabbed her arm to hold her with him. “No. Stay.”

“You need a doctor.”

“Stay.”

She sighed and touched his face again. “Oh, you poor thing.”

“I look…bad, huh?”

Her soft eyes, gold-flecked green, grew softer still. She asked in a gentle whisper, “What’s happened to you?”

“I wish I knew,” he heard himself mutter, with effort. “Tell me. Your…name?” His tongue wasn’t working any better than his lips. Each word took form with tremendous difficulty.

“Tessa. Tessa Jones.”

He repeated, “Tessa. Nice. Like it…”

The woman said something else. But he didn’t hear her. He shut his eyes and let the strange white world and the big, kind-eyed clean-smelling woman drift away from him.

 

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