I’m actually here. In West Virginia. Way the hell and gone far from LA.
Rural Ransom County was so different from the noise and bustle of LA or Chicago.
“When you decide to do something, you really do it, don’t you, son?” Johnny Rayne stared at his reflection in the old farmhouse kitchen window.
Guh. He was
looking a little tired. Though the window glass didn’t show all the details, Johnny had been on the receiving end of enough comments in the last six months that he’d started paying more attention in the morning when he shaved.
“Johnny, you’re going to drive yourself into an early grave. You’ve been working nonstop since you got to LA. You’ve got to get away from that crazy lifestyle--and get back to where the real people are.”
His songwriting partner, Suzie Langstrom, had been driving him nuts the last three years. “I don’t want to lecture you, but when did you last spend time with people who didn’t want something from you--who didn’t care that you’re a superstar?”
And it hadn’t just been Suzie.
At his last physical, Johnny had heard an earful from Dr. Jim. “Your blood pressure is a little higher than I’d like, and so is your blood sugar. You need to get off your hamster wheel and live normally for a while. You’re thirty-six, not sixteen. Take a break from touring. Take up whittling, or paint a picture--or ten. Lay off the booze. If you don’t, I just might be meeting up with you at a hospital instead of backstage.”
Fronting one of the top rock bands in the world had taken fifteen years of hard work, and now Johnny could see every one of those years in the lines around his eyes. He and his musician partners had come up the hard way, and had toured and recorded, recorded and toured, for a long damned time.
Walking away from Storm and his team--his friends--had taken a boatload of determination.
And six months to work up the guts.
His agent hadn’t really understood, not at first. CeCe was sympathetic, but he knew she expected him to bail after a few weeks of roughing it in the wilds of the Allegheny Mountains. She’d certainly been snarky enough on the phone yesterday as he’d driven to the farm.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
The skepticism in CeCe’s voice had been loud and clear over the car speakers. “You’re not exactly a country boy.”
His bandmates weren’t talking to him any longer. They thought he’d had one too many hits of something if he was throwing away superstardom to buy some rundown old corn palace in the middle of Deliverance
Their words, not his.
Johnny sighed, then yawned. Roughing it last night on the aero bed hadn’t been too bad, but he’d lain awake for a couple of hours questioning himself--again.
Dawn had come and gone over an hour ago, and light now filled the renovated kitchen. The previous owner’s care in restoring the 1920s structure was evident everywhere, and the heart of this home was a careful balance of old and new. Johnny had been slightly disappointed to find all new kitchen cabinets in place, but the mission-style maple echoed the warmth of the sun, and red-brown granite counters gave the room a solid feel.
The room’s cheerfulness suddenly had Johnny shelving the what-ifs.
He’d made his decision, and for a damned good reason. He was in it now, and he needed to move forward.
Not look back.
Storm was in the past. His future was waiting--and maybe, just maybe, a family was somewhere in the mix.
He’d set his alarm early, since his movers were scheduled to arrive first thing. By seven thirty, Johnny was at the living room window, watching as the long vehicle arrived. The truck came up the gravel lane, the sound of the diesel engine loud in the meadow. Johnny could see the driver was having a little difficulty on the loose stone, and he breathed a sigh of relief when the truck came into the open area near the house. His ball cap was already on, the brim tugged down low as he ran outside to meet the crew.
He shivered a little at the cool mountain air and zipped his sheepskin-lined jean jacket. Three thousand feet in elevation had sounded high and cold back in LA. And September in West Virginia was proving to be exactly that. “Hey, guys, good morning.” He walked up to the cab as the driver lowered the window.
“Mornin’, sir. Are you Mr. Snow? We were told we’d be meeting the owner’s agent here.”
Johnny almost snorted at the silliness of the fake name. Snow.
His attorney was such a wise ass. Chris Judson had handled the sale and scheduled everything under an assumed name to protect Johnny’s privacy. Clearly the man had been having a little fun with the arrangements; either that, or Chris was still pissed that Johnny had kept this huge life change a secret until two months ago.
“Yeah, I’m Snow.” He waved toward the curved drive area. “Do you want to pull over here so that your loading door is facing the house? That’ll also have you heading the right way when you’re ready to leave.”
The driver scouted the lane, nodding as he mused. “That should work. I’m going to get my guys out to help me turn the rig around. If you want to wait over by the porch, we’ll get set.” At Johnny’s assent, he shoved the gearstick forward as the other men jumped out of the cab.
While the team got set up, Johnny headed back inside to make fresh coffee. He’d picked up a coffeemaker in town yesterday and had just been ready to make a pot when the movers showed.
He could hear the diesel revving as the driver negotiated the tight quarters; his meadow and drive were spacious, except when the vehicle had a thirty-two-foot trailer. The van must have had another load on with his; surely he didn’t have enough stuff to fill the whole rig.
An hour and a half into the unloading, the foreman came inside. “Hey, Johnny, we’ve got some boxes coming off that don’t have any rooms on them.” The crew hadn’t batted an eye when he’d told them to call him Johnny. “You mind coming outside and marking them for us?”
He could tell they didn’t know who he was. Why would anyone think that Johnny Rayne was in the wilds of West Virginia anyway? He’d even abandoned his hat, starting to feel comfortable here in his new place.
“Sure thing, Bobby.” Johnny trotted down the steps and stopped at the pile of boxes next to the veranda. He grabbed a Sharpie from one of the guys and started writing room names, hearing a car drive up as he did so.
Turning his head, he was surprised to see a sheriff’s SUV come to a stop in the drive, facing the moving truck. He watched as a tough-looking bruiser stepped out. The silver star pinned to the dark brown uniform coat caught Johnny’s eye.
“Good morning.” The stranger’s voice was deep and rumbly. A chill chased over Johnny’s body.
“Um, good morning. Is everything all right?” He couldn’t help the worry. He was a city boy--Chicago and LA both, where the sight of a policeman usually meant trouble.
“That depends. Are you the new owner here, sir?” The lawman stepped close, looking around as he did so. His gaze passed over the truck and the boxes stacked near the steps before returning to Johnny. When their eyes met, Johnny felt the tingle of another thrill. Whoa.
This big fella was something else.
Johnny nodded. “Yes. Yes, I am.” He set the Sharpie down and walked toward the newcomer. “I’m Johnny.” He held out his hand.
“You got a last name, Johnny?” His hand was taken in a callused grip. The shake was brief but strong.
“Um, yeah--it’s, uh, Snow.” He grimaced as he bumbled the name. While this moniker was new, the habit was too ingrained; he didn’t want the media finding him here in his new life.
He swore he heard a faint snort at that. “You sure?” Johnny looked up into beautiful green eyes--a green so light it looked like peridot. In the sunlight, those eyes shone brightly. Lost for a moment, he forgot the question until he saw the sheriff raise a black eyebrow.
He scrambled to remember what he’d been asked, then blew out a scoffing breath. “Of course I’m sure, uh...” --he looked down at the name tag on the impressive chest-- “Sheriff Grissom.” He raised his gaze again, meeting the unbelievable green. He had to stop himself from squirming at the direct stare he got in return.
He knew what the sheriff saw. It had been his claim to fame, after all. Lean, five feet ten, with a head full of wavy blond hair that had a tendency to curl. He had whiskey-brown eyes that had wooed many a fan.
Johnny had never bought into fake-and-bake tanning, and since he was either in the studio during the day or performing at night, he hadn’t seen much of the sun in recent years. He knew he was kind of pale-skinned--in fact, some of the band had christened him “Vampire.” And even though his voice was a big part of the reason for Storm’s success, it certainly had not hurt that the lead singer was a sex symbol.
But not now. Not any more. Johnny had made the decision that he wasn’t going to continue to get by on his looks.
People who lived in the real world didn’t get to do that.
Still, Johnny wasn’t about to give up his wardrobe. Today he’d dressed in snug 501s, a cashmere pullover in cobalt blue, and gorgeous dark green Bruno Magli suede oxfords. He was confident he blended in, looking the part of country gentleman.
He saw Grissom’s eyes narrow. Johnny raised his brows in query, wondering what was going on in the sheriff’s mind. The brush-cut black hair was dusted with gray at the temples, and the tanned face was a little rugged. The sheriff was clean-shaven but showed signs of probably having a five o’clock shadow. The big man was certainly not bad-looking--if one liked the Marlboro Man look, which Johnny didn’t.
He definitely didn’t.
“Looks like you and your family plan on staying around.” It was not a question. Grissom crossed his arms over his muscled chest, the sleeves on his unzipped jacket pulling taut. He planted his feet, letting his gaze drift over the movers before coming back to Johnny.
“It’s only me. And, yeah, I do. That okay?” Johnny couldn’t help the smart-ass tone. This sheriff might be gorgeous, but the big guy was beginning to get on his nerves.
“I believe so,” Grissom mused, his eyebrow tilting again. “I heard this house had changed hands. Becky James couldn’t tell me anything about you. She didn’t have any info on the new owner up here. So when one of my deputies reported seeing smoke from the house, I decided to come out and see what was going on.”
What the hell?
Becky James was the real estate agent who’d handled his sale; he knew that much from Chris. “You always investigate new people moving into the area, Sheriff?” He planted his own feet and matched the sheriff’s crossed arms.
Grissom’s lips twitched faintly. “Yup.” He sounded a little bit like Gary Cooper. “I also like to let them know when there’s a security issue in the area.” He dropped his arms and let one hand rest on his holster.
That gun looked pretty big.
“What do you mean?” Johnny dropped his arms as well and stepped a little closer. He picked up a faint scent of soap and man drifting on the gentle autumn breeze.
“You own a gun, Johnny?”
* * * *
“Of course I don’t own a gun! What the fuck kind of question is that? Do you ask all the new guys if they have a gun?” He hissed in disgust before taking off again. “What? New guy from the city and you immediately think I’m a gangbanger or drug dealer or something?” He threw up his arms and turned away, muttering to himself before turning back to face Grissom.
When he spun around, he spotted the sheriff watching in open amusement. “Mmm, nope. Just thought you’d like to know a prisoner’s escaped from Huttonsville, which isn’t too far away. We have a call tree for folks in the county, but since you’re brand-new, and I was in this area anyway, I thought I’d drive over and let you know.” The sheriff smirked a little as the message sunk in.
Johnny stepped back in embarrassment. “Oh.” Oops.
“Well. I... Well, who is this guy? Is he dangerous? Where’s Huttonsville?” Johnny hadn’t actually thought about being all alone out here until that very moment. He’d been so caught up in getting away from LA and the phony life he’d been living that it hadn’t once occurred to him he’d be totally and completely on his own.
Grissom became all business as he dug in his jacket pocket for an info sheet. He held it out to Johnny, who looked at it like it might bite. “Edgar Smithton was incarcerated for armed robbery and assault, and Huttonsville’s about forty-five minutes away from here. You might want to make sure you keep your house locked up and watch yourself when you’re around the property. We don’t know that he’s heading this way, but just in case, it pays to be prepared.” He smiled slightly again. “You might want to get a dog--a big one.”
Oh. Oh, that was an idea. Johnny’d always loved animals, but his dad had not allowed them at home, and since he’d been an adult, he’d moved around too much. He absently accepted the sheet of paper from Grissom.
“Huh. That’s a great idea. As soon as the movers are done, I can go get one.” Johnny smiled to himself, liking the idea. He caught Grissom watching him. “Is there a shelter in town?”
“Um, yeah. The county maintains one attached to the vet’s office down near the courthouse. D’you know where that is?”
“I think so. I think I remember seeing it.” A thought occurred to him, and he bit his lip. “Do I call 911 if I see this guy? Do you have 911 out here?”
Grissom snorted. “Yes, city slicker, we have 911. And you can call me if you see anything.” He pulled a card and pen from his breast pocket and wrote a number on the back. “Here’s my cell number. Coverage is pretty good on this side of the mountain, but if you get too much higher, you’ll lose it.” He held out the card. “You can reach me on this anytime.”
Johnny stared a moment, his lips parting in surprise. He didn’t think police gave out their personal phone numbers to the public. Wait a minute. Was this a come-on?
Was he supposed to know that? How could he tell if the sheriff was coming on to him?
Nah--couldn’t be. In West Virginia? Couldn’t happen. “Um, thanks, Sheriff.” He gingerly accepted the card, then slid it into his front pocket. He looked up in time to catch Grissom checking out the fit of his jeans, and for the first time in about a dozen years, Johnny blushed.
He immediately began backing away, heading toward his pile of boxes. He stuttered another thank-you before grabbing a box and practically running up the stairs.
What in the hell is wrong with you, you doofus? There is no way Grissom was checking out your package. That guy--he’s straight as an arrow. Gotta be. And anyway, if he
were checking you out, what’s the idea of running up the stairs like a scared little rabbit?
Johnny admitted he didn’t have the first idea why he’d taken off. Lots of times he’d found himself in the position of accepting or deflecting a come-on and was well versed in handling it. This guy had put him completely off balance, and Johnny didn’t know why. He’d be better off focusing on the last of the stuff coming out of the truck and getting it arranged inside so that he could go get a dog. Now that he knew an escaped prisoner was in the area, he didn’t relish being home alone out here in the middle of rural America.
He suddenly had a greater respect for the pioneers and Daniel Boone, who’d been in the same area two hundred years before and had made do with a hell of a lot less, taking on nature, bears, and man-made hazards. All without cell phones and laptops.
By one p.m., Bobby and the crew had finished unloading and setting up and were ready to head out. Johnny signed all the paperwork and handed out sizable tips. After watching these guys lug all that stuff--especially the careful way they’d moved his grand piano into the parlor--he’d been more than glad to pass out the cash. He locked up the house and headed down the gravel road behind the moving truck, wanting to get back home before it got too dark.
Half an hour later, he spotted the veterinarian’s office and followed the road along the side, pulling into the parking lot where he saw the shelter sign. Putting his hat and glasses on, he headed over to the entry, walking inside to the sound of dogs barking.
He stepped up to the counter where a young woman was busily working at a computer. She looked up inquiringly, then smiled when she saw Johnny. “Are you Mr. Snow?”
Nonplussed, he stared at her a moment. “How did you know?’
“Sheriff Grissom came by a while ago and said you’d be coming over. He told me you’d be wanting a guard dog.” She stood up and came around the counter, then held out her hand. “I’m Jacey.”
Huh. Johnny shook her hand, unable to help responding to the lovely smile and the soothing sound of her southern drawl. “Pleased to meet you, Jacey. I’m Johnny.” He followed her as she turned and walked toward a door marked Kennels.
Upon entering, his nose was hit with the humid smell of dogs. The shelter looked small, which seemed right given the size town they were in, but he could see at least ten runs, some of them with dogs inside. There were some cat cages off to one side, with more occupants over there.
He couldn’t help digging for a little information. “So Sheriff Grissom came by? What did he say?” He followed Jacey down the first aisle.
Jacey slowed as they neared the first dog. “He said you were a city boy and that you needed to get something big and fierce to protect you.” She smiled shyly as she said it, putting up her hands. “I’m sure he was kidding!”
Johnny smiled slightly, but inside, he was seething. Who does that big bastard think he is? Hey, buddy, I’m from Chicago!
Okay, he had to admit he’d led a pampered life during the last decade, but still, it wasn’t like he was from Mayberry, for cryin’ out loud. I’ll show-- Whoa!
He came to an abrupt halt at the fourth run, staring helplessly at the big black lump lying on the floor. The dog lifted its head as Johnny stepped to the gate, watching him quietly. The sharp ears pricked up, and the bobbed tail pumped briefly before stopping.
Johnny instinctively dropped to his knees, took off his sunglasses, and pressed his fingers to the chain-link gate as he looked at the beautiful dog. “Who is this?” He was almost whispering.
“He doesn’t have a name.” Jacey’s voice was a little sad. “He’s been here about a week. He was found up in the forest. We think somebody dumped him there, since we haven’t gotten any calls about him.” Jacey shook her head as if unable to imagine anyone cruel enough to do that.
“What kind of dog is he? Do you know how old he is?” Johnny slid two of his fingers through the chain-link, watching as the dog stretched out an inquisitive nose and just about touched the tips of his fingers. The dog sniffed several times before tentatively sticking out a long, pink tongue and softly licking
Johnny’s heart melted. He crooned to the large dog, absently listening as Jacey recited the animal’s info. He noted the mud crusted along the dog’s longer hair on his chest, belly, and legs.
She pulled down the clipboard attached to the run. “Dr. Brown thinks he’s a giant schnauzer. I’ve never even heard of that. We sure don’t see any dogs like him around here. Doc guesses he’s about a year and a half. Owners probably couldn’t believe how big he’d gotten and figured they couldn’t handle a big dog.” She hissed in disgust. She reattached the clipboard to the gate. “You think he’s the one?” Johnny could hear the smile back in her voice.
“Yep. No doubt about it. What do I need to do to take him home with me?” He gave one last finger wave to the black dog before pushing back to his feet. As he did so, his gaze swung past another run, this one holding two smaller dogs, twins by the look of them. They were shivering, whining piteously as he turned toward them.
“Ohhh, look at those two. Who are they?” He felt a gravitational pull toward the run holding the two cream- colored, curly-coated dogs.
“Oh, those two--Fred and Barney. They’re cockapoos. The owner, Mrs. Sanders, broke her hip and can’t take care of them anymore. They’re only three years old. I’m really hoping somebody will take them really soon since their time here is almost up.”
“What do you mean?” He gulped. “You mean...if they don’t get adopted, they’ll be...”
Jacey nodded sadly. “Mrs. Sanders calls every day to see if anyone has adopted them. It breaks my heart to have to keep saying no.”
Johnny turned back to look at the big black dog, then swiveled his head around to the two shivering sad sacks. Now what?