Sam Barkley had promised to protect her. But Keely Harper was beginning to think she would never be safe again. Since she’d returned to Echo Ridge, the town of her birth, she’d been plagued by nightmares—not to mention that her new neighbors looked at her strangely.
Keely had been orphaned at five, and left with no memory of her early life. She’d come to Echo Ridge hoping to fill in some of the gaps, yet all she’d found were more questions. Her handsome lover seemed to know something he wasn’t telling her. Could she trust the safety she felt in Sam’s warm embrace? Or would her fragile serenity be destroyed by the devastating secret of her past.
Woodland Hills, California, thirty years later
“You know this running away to Hicksville, U.S.A., won’t solve anything.”
Keely turned slowly at the sound of her ex-husband’s voice. She stared at his golden, tanned good looks and wondered why she had never before noticed the slight weakness in the chin and the arrogance in the eyes. She couldn’t say all their years together were a waste. She had a wonderful daughter as a result. But the thought of her ex-husband left a very bitter taste in her mouth. She didn’t mourn the loss of him, but she did mourn the loss of a marriage she had thought would last forever.
“I’m not running away, Jay,” she said as calmly as was possible after she tamped down her first reaction—to deck him and hurt his pretty face. “I decided it was time to make some changes in my life. This was one of them.” She waved her hand in the direction of the movers, who were busy loading furniture and boxes onto the van.
His brilliant blue eyes slid sideways toward a teenage girl who was chattering away with two other girls.
“What about her?”
Now Keely really wanted to plant her fist in his weak jaw.
“Steffie,” she said, stressing their daughter’s name, “doesn’t like the idea of leaving her friends, but she’s willing to give it a try. After all, her father doesn’t seem to give a damn she’ll be moving several hundred miles away.”
He flushed. “I just thought I’d ask,” he said sullenly.
“You bastard,” she snarled, making sure to keep her voice low. She wasn’t about to let their daughter know just what a jerk her father was. “Why are you even asking now? You never cared before.”
“I’m not the one taking her hundreds of miles away from the only home she’s ever known.” He was gentleman enough to keep his voice low so he wouldn’t be overheard.
“And I wasn’t the one who had an affair that stirred up this whole mess,” she retorted. Keely’s fingers curled tightly into her palms. For a moment, she seriously thought about punching the man. “I realize she might be a perfect image of you, but every day I thank God she didn’t get your personality.” She stepped back and took a deep breath. “Forget it. I promised myself I wouldn’t fight with you.”
Jay turned his head and stared at his daughter. Steffie’s shoulder-length tresses were a darker shade of blonde than his own sun-gold coloring and her eyes a darker blue that turned cobalt when she wore any shade of blue. He never seemed to notice that, though. All he saw was that her jaw betrayed the same stubborn vein as her mother’s and her temper as heated as her mother’s. When news of his affair had come out, Steffie hadn’t lost any time in telling her father exactly what she thought of him. He first blamed Keely for telling their daughter, but Steffie had overheard their argument and let it be known that a so-called good friend of hers had told her what she overheard her parents talking about When Jay lost his wife he lost his daughter, too. His guilt would have forced him to disown his flesh and blood, but his child had already taken care of that.
“Hey, Mom, arc we going now or what?” Steffie called from the truck. She didn’t look at or acknowledge her fa¬ther by word.
Jay held out his hand. “I hope everything goes well for you, Keely,” he said formally, as if speaking to an ac¬quaintance instead of the woman he had been married to for close to fourteen years. “Although, I still can’t imagine you wanting to go back to that hick town. It’s not as if you grew up there. You left there when you were five years old, for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing up there for you.”
“Right now. Jay, a nice quiet life sounds like exactly what I need. I plan to fix up my parents’ house and settle in there.” She started toward the utility vehicle she’d bought for the trip. Even with the extra room, the back was piled high with things Steffie didn’t feel she could live without until the movers arrived with the rest of their be¬longings.
“Bye, Jay,” Steffie said breezily, climbing into the pas¬senger side. She smiled sweetly at her mother’s knowing look.
“If you have any problems, you call me,” he told Keely.
She thought about telling him she hadn’t called him be¬fore when she had problems, so why should she bother now? Instead, she gave a curt nod as she climbed into the truck.
Jay shook his head as he studied the four-wheel-drive vehicle. “I can’t see you driving one of these.”
“Max will be perfect up there,” Steffie spoke up.
He grimaced. He’d never understood why Keely felt the need to name her vehicles.
“His name is from the Mad Max movie,” Steffie ex¬plained.
“Appropriate,” he muttered, stepping back.
“Bye, Jay, have a good life.” Keely started up the en¬gine and backed down the driveway.
“Did he give you the speech about watching out for bears and tigers in the woods?” Steffie asked. “Or did he tell you that Echo Ridge probably still hasn’t gotten run¬ning water in their houses yet and you’ll have to go outside and chop wood so we’ll have heat? And all the men will call you ‘little lady.”‘
Keely burst out laughing. “You are an impossible child.”
“Yes, but you love me anyway because I’m just like you.”
“How true. Steffie, we are going to have the time of our lives up there,” she announced.
The young girl immediately turned on the radio, pushing buttons until she got the rock station she wanted.
As Keely drove onto the freeway, she felt a strange tick¬lish feeling creep along her backbone.
Her parents had died in a traffic accident when Keely was five. Keely had been gravely ill with pneumonia and she was told her grandmother had come over to take care of her that day. Not long after Keely recovered from her illness, her grandmother moved the two of them south to San Diego.
When Keely was young, she always felt as if a part of her life had abruptly ended with the death of her parents. As if something had been left unfinished. It also bothered her that she couldn’t remember them. She had stopped asking her grandmother after she saw how upset her que¬ries made her. But she never forgot the questions that she always hoped she’d find answers for. That part of her life had been effectively wiped from her memory. But there were times she wished she knew why she remembered so little before moving to San Diego.
It was only recently that Keely had felt a strong need to return to her roots. While cleaning out a box of papers, she’d found the paperwork for the family home in Echo Ridge. The property had been left to Keely and even when young, she’d insisted her grandmother never sell the house. So it had always been a rental. For the past couple years, it had been unoccupied, so Keely thought this was the time to move up there. She’d contacted the Realtor who’d man¬aged the house for her. Since it was currently uninhabit-able, she arranged to rent a house until she could fix hers up.