Whiskey River Runaway
When widower Truett Mahan finds a trespasser hiding in one of his building renovation projects, he thinks he has a runaway teen on his hands. He’s right about the runaway, but Hope Larson is all woman, and in desperate need of help. True never turns away a person in trouble, but helping Hope wakes up feelings and dreams he thought buried with his wife years ago.
Hope was forced to run to protect the people she loves, paring her life down to what fits in her backpack. True tempts her to stop running and set down some roots in Whiskey River, a town she’s come to love.
Can this strong, honorable man help her retake her life, or will the danger she’d left behind strike out at them both?
The place was a wreck.
There was no other way to describe it. This house on the outskirts of Whiskey River had passed run down some time ago. Truett Mahan was sorry to see it in such a state. There were a lot of memories here. Memories of good times and sad.
And the way Jamie Templeton was going, it just might become a fan shrine one of these days, since he'd first discovered his calling here. He grinned at the thought, remembering not the rock star but the quiet, kind of dorky kid from high school.
The kid whose world had shattered the same day his had.
"I should have thought about it sooner," True muttered, walking carefully given the rubble, a section of roof here, pieces of broken siding there as he headed for the back of the house. It wasn't really Jamie's fault. It wasn't like the guy had much time these days to come back to Whiskey River and see how his aunt's old place was doing. And after the way Millie Templeton had stepped up not just for Jamie but for himself and his sister as well, he owed her better than to let the home she'd loved end up in this state.
He rounded the back corner of the house, skirting a large pile of debris, and glanced at the big picture window that looked out toward the river. Or had; it was broken now, the late afternoon sun highlighting a spider web of cracks overtaking nearly the entire expanse of glass, and he guessed one more good storm would take it out altogether. He'd have to board it up; he'd thought he might find problems like this so he'd brought out a couple of full sheets of plywood in his truck. The place had been well built originally, but no building could withstand years of total neglect.
His sister Zee always said old houses died of emptiness, a rather whimsical view for his practical little sister. Who had had a sizeable crush on Jamie, back when he'd just been that clever but withdrawn kid who spent most of his time up in a tree house with an old, battered guitar.
That thought made him glance toward the big post oak about halfway between the house and the river. And he laughed; the tree house Jamie had built was in better shape than the house itself. Which shouldn't surprise him, even as a kid the guy had been clever about how things went together. He—
He stopped dead in the act of turning back to the house. He'd seen. . .something. He was sure of it. Movement. Just inside that picture window. Quick. Almost furtive. Had some animal gotten in there? It certainly seemed possible, given the state of things.
He walked over to the back door, tried the knob. It, at least, was locked. He already knew the front door was as well. He might have to finish breaking this window to get in, which he could do since he had the materials to board it up.
He kept going around the house, mind already on offloading a full sheet of plywood, getting his drill out of the toolbox and digging out some wood screws long enough to hold. He'd have to—
Again he stopped short. This time next to the only other exterior door on the house, the one that he knew led into the laundry room. The lower left corner of the glass pane had a fist-sized hole broken out. The corner that would give a person access to the door knob.
And suddenly that furtive movement he'd seen took on an entirely different feeling.
For an instant he thought of heading for his truck to grab his Winchester 94. Whiskey River was generally a quiet place when it came to serious crime, their very effective police department had a rep, but you never knew. Especially a trespasser with unknown motive. But the only living things he'd ever shot with the classic weapon he'd owned since childhood were rattlesnakes, and once a rabid skunk, and one of his life's goals was to keep it that way. So instead he backtracked to that pile of debris he'd passed, dug out a board about the length of a baseball bat. He hefted it; it seemed sturdy enough, and had a couple of good sized, treacherous looking nails sticking out at one end.
If I need more than this, then I'm in trouble anyway.
He went back to the door with the broken window. Tried the knob. A bit to his surprise, it didn't turn. Who would break into a place and then lock the door after them? Especially when it was obvious how they'd done it and anybody else could now do the same, thanks to the broken window?
Which he did, reaching through carefully to avoid the sharp edges of the broken glass with his hand and trusting his jacket to protect his wrist and arm. The inside knob turned easily. But of course the damn door squealed from disuse as he tried to open it quietly. So much for stealth. He shoved it the rest of the way and stepped inside, looking in all directions as quickly as he could.
Nothing. He scanned the floor. The layer of dust was fairly thick, although the tile floor beneath looked solid enough. And he could see it, thanks to the set of footprints that crossed it.
A kid? Was the answer as simple as that, a kid exploring? Some kind of athletic shoe, judging by the tread pattern. Worn a bit, with smooth spots on the ball and heel. For a moment he stood still, just listening for any sound of movement. Nothing. He looked at the size of that shoe print again. Lowered the board. Called out.
"It's okay, you can come out."
"I know the place looks abandoned, so if you just wanted to explore, that's understandable."
And again nothing.
He supposed the smart thing to do would be to call for the folks with the badges. But he kept thinking about the size of those feet and didn't do it. The police had better things to do anyway.
He followed the tracks into the hallway. Saw two sets of the same prints, one pointing toward the kitchen, one toward the den. The trail toward the kitchen seemed more traveled, as if whoever it was had been in there more. He knew the power to the house had been off while Jamie decided what he wanted to do, so it wasn't like anyone could get much practical use out of the place. And he was fairly sure any pest-attracting food had long ago been removed.
He could call his sister and ask. She'd been the one Jamie had asked to see to clearing the place out. He'd overheard that unpleasant conversation; in Zee's view that he wouldn't come home to oversee it himself was just further proof that this particular home town boy had gone off the rails. But to Zee, voluntarily living in L. A. was proof enough already.
Nah, he didn't have to call her to be sure. He knew Zee, how thorough she was. She'd agreed—eventually—to see to it, in part because Millie had been there for her when, as a teenager, she'd needed an adult female ear, and that was enough to assure she would do a thorough job. Even if it put her in a mood for a while, as this job had.
"I just can't believe he doesn't care enough to come home to go through her things," she had said. "She's the one who encouraged his music. I know he loved her."
True could empathize; it had been hell going through their parent's things after they'd been killed in the same accident that had left Jamie an orphan, and as the oldest, the task had fallen to him. As had taking care of his little sister. It had been an. . .interesting transition.
And good practice for your life later.
He snapped himself out of the thought with a shake of his head. Fine time to lapse into old, painful memories, standing in an abandoned house that had been broken into with the perpetrator likely still inside. He hefted the board, considered a half-second longer, then headed for the kitchen.
It appeared empty. The floor was less dusty here. Much less. In fact, it looked as if someone had made an effort to clean; the swirling marks looked like a dust mop. His brow furrowed. You didn't do that, did you, unless you were here a while? Or planned to be?
He scanned the room. The counters were clear, and the appliances looked intact. He'd seen to the shutting off of gas and power himself; the last thing they needed was some kind of accident blowing the place up. Zee had been more focused on Millie's personal belongings, the kind of thing "that idiot" should care about, if he hadn't turned into a "brainless twit." So maybe a mop had gotten left behind.
He turned to follow the other set of small tracks he'd seen, that led to the den on the other side of the house. Halfway there it struck him, what that room had that none of the others did.
January in Texas would seem a paradise to many parts of the country, but it had been dropping into the mid-thirties at night lately, and he for one wouldn't want to be living rough in it. It was still chilly even now, shortly after sunrise. Somebody looking for something to steal was one thing. Somebody seeking shelter from the winter cold, with nowhere else to go, was something else again.
He nudged the door to the den open.
It was empty. It was also, he realized after a moment, warmer. The closed off room was definitely warmer than the rest of the empty house. After a glance around he walked over to the fireplace that looked as if it had been built from rock out of the river that ran by in the distance. He touched the rounded stones. Not hot, but noticeably warm. He had no doubt now, but bent slightly to test the temperature of the interior of the fireplace. Above the layer of ash and charred fragments of wood he felt an even stronger heat, and guessed one good stir would turn up some live embers. Recent, then.
The bare wood floor of the room was in the same state as the kitchen floor, looking as if it had been swirled over with a mop. And the space directly in front of the hearth was the cleanest of all. From someone sitting there? Perhaps sleeping there?
He walked back to the kitchen, considering. Stood in the middle of that room, looking around. And after a moment he walked over to a door in the far corner, which at one time a had had a hand-painted sign above it that said "Millie's Pantry," a holdover from when she had run a small shop in town. He hefted the nailed board in his hand, just in case. He pulled the door open.
He'd found the trespasser.
And the mop.
And she hit him with it.