It had been a rough couple of days when Carla Burchfield eventually decided to treat herself to a decent night’s sleep in a proper bed. The Melrose Motel’s dim lights beckoned her and she sighed as she found the entrance and dumped her bags on the well-worn carpet of the dusty reception.
“How long’re you staying?” The old man behind the desk looked bored and smelled of stale pipe smoke.
Carla looked around at the run-down building. It wasn’t at all welcoming, but the prospect of a real bed made it the most inviting place on earth. “I’m not actually sure. Can I just pay for tonight and take it from there?” She pushed the peak of her cap up a little, trying to assure the guy there was nothing shifty or suspicious about her. In fact, the cap was hiding her greasy, uncombed hair as much as it was attempting to disguise her.
The old guy scratched his white hair and nodded. “Sure. Twenty bucks for the room. If you want breakfast there’s a café across the street.”
Carla nodded and handed over the money. She’d noticed the café on the way here and been disappointed to find it closed. It was almost ten o’clock and the place was deserted.
“Is there anywhere to eat now?” she asked hopefully.
The man shook his head. “Nope. We don’t get many people passing through here so there’s no need.”
She could certainly see why!
She followed his directions to her room, disappointed but not really surprised. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since noon. She had a couple of candy bars in her bag and a bag of potato chips that would have to tide her over until morning. She pulled the cap from her head as soon as she was alone, causing her long dark curls to fall manically around her shoulders. She was looking forward to a good shower and the chance to wash her hair. She found the room and quickly opened the door.
The first thing that caught her eye was the bed. It was a single, and the eiderdown looked quite thread-worn and faded, but it made her heart sing. She dumped her bags, locked the door and leaped onto the bed. It was hard but not as hard as the ground she had slept on last night, or the park bench from the night before. She had spent her first night away on the train, which was more comfortable but she hadn’t dared fall asleep then.
This felt sumptuous and cozy and she immediately closed her eyes. Relief swept through her whole body and she sank into the lumpy mattress.
She must have fallen asleep as she opened her eyes a while later to find the room in total darkness. Even the dim light that had filtered in from the street when she had arrived had been switched off. She quickly fumbled around for the light switch before pulling off her clothes, and had a wash at a basin in one corner of the room. The nearest bathroom was down the hall, she’d remembered, and she threw on a nightshirt as she went to find it, being careful to lock her door as she left.
As soon as she returned to her room, she rummaged in her bag for her journal, which she wrote as she devoured the snack from her bag. Even the potato chips did little to abate the growls from her empty stomach, and she looked forward to getting a good meal in the morning. She had been so busy concentrating on getting away from Sheridan that she hadn’t bothered to stop for proper meals. She’d grabbed whatever she’d been able to at whatever station she had found herself at before hopping on another train. She figured she must have traveled far enough by now, and hoped Jerome and his gang wouldn’t think to look for her in South Dakota, let alone a little place like this. It was so out of the way and she had walked for hours since leaving the tiny train station several miles away.
She climbed into the bed and relished the feel of the covers against her tired body. The softness of the pillow and the coolness of the cotton sheets surrounded her in a decadence she had not afforded herself since that dreadful night.
Her mind whirled as she recalled the look on Jerome Pearson’s face as he’d celebrated his victory with Quinn Mason and Steve and Oliver Hutchings. They’d bragged about the horrified look on Mr. Roberts’ face when they’d pulled out their knives, and had forced him to open his safe as well as his cash till. The drug store had netted them almost forty-seven thousand dollars, and they were planning to split it four ways. Trouble was, they’d been so busy drinking to their success that none of them had been still capable of counting the money, let alone guarding it.
Carla had seen a side to her boyfriend she had never imagined, and in that first few seconds her love and adoration turned to hate and loathing. He was nothing but a common thief who enjoyed tormenting old men, threatening their lives if they didn’t hand over the money they had worked so hard to make. She had known Mr. Roberts for several years, and had comforted him at his wife’s funeral. Betty Roberts had been a good friend to her when she had first arrived in Sheridan, and she had even given her a job for a while.
Once the men had drunk themselves to sleep she had taken the opportunity to grab the money and run. That money was for Mr. Roberts and she just had to figure out a way to get it back to him without landing herself in trouble. She knew Jerome and his buddies would kill her if they caught up with her, but she had to do something. Mr. Roberts didn’t deserve this and she was determined to help him.
The memories of that night haunted her dreams and her mind reeled with possibilities as she drifted off to sleep again.
When she woke she actually felt much better. It was already after eight-thirty, and she smiled as she looked around the little room. It was very sparse, with just one old rattan chair in the corner and an even older chest of drawers against one wall. The carpet was worn and the paper was peeling from the walls, but to Carla it was luxury. Even the damp, musty smell that hung heavily in the air wasn’t enough to darken her mood.
She felt a lot more human once she had showered and dressed in clean clothes, and she grabbed her bags and headed out to the little café for some breakfast. The smell alone was heaven, and when she saw the size of the portion she was given her heart leaped. She devoured the huge breakfast along with two pots of tea and several slices of toast.
“You look like you haven’t eaten in a week.” The round lady behind the counter grinned.
Carla didn’t want to tell her how long it had been since she’d had a decent meal, so she just smiled and tucked in. She was quite a large girl and could probably do with losing a few pounds, she thought, but there was certainly a limit to how long a girl should go without proper food.
The two bags sat on the bench next to her, one containing the few clothes she had thrown together, and the other with the money. She had stuffed the notes into a duffel bag, hoping it would look inconspicuous, and she guarded it with her life. Until last night that had meant not having a proper sleep in case someone tried to take it from under her head, where she used it as a cushion while the strap was tightly wrapped around her wrist. That was why she had slept so soundly last night, she supposed.
“Is there a bank near here?” she asked the woman, who took her plate away.
“About half a mile away it is,” she told her with a smile. “We’ve got a post office down the road but that’s it. Folks don’t usually hang about here—they just drive right on through.”
Carla nodded. She had looked out for local amenities when she had arrived last night, but in the dark it was hard to see much at all. She paid for the meal and set off for the post office where she bought a large postal box and a black marker pen.
“You from Cavern County?” the young girl behind the counter asked her.
“No, I’m just passing through. If I get this ready to send, will it go in the post today?”
The girl nodded. “Post gets picked up this afternoon. If it’s anything valuable you’re sending you’ll need to fill in one of these.”
She handed Carla a form. Damn! Not only did it require her to declare the contents of the parcel, but also to give her personal details. She bit her lip thoughtfully. “How far is it to the nearest town?”
“About half a mile in that direction there’s a small place called Almondine. There’s not much there, just a few shops and stuff. The next town after that’s about a mile on, that gets you to Pelican’s Heath. It’s not much bigger but the people are real friendly there.”
Carla thanked her and took the box, hoping that one of those places was where the nearest bank would be. She went back to the motel where she had spent the night. “Please can I stay another few nights?” she asked the old man, who looked surprised to see her again.
“Sure you can. Pay up front, mind. Your room hasn’t been serviced yet so you can stay there if that suits?”
“Great.” Checking her wallet, she reckoned she could afford five nights. That should give her enough time to get some much-needed rest and the space to clear her head and figure out her next move. She smiled and took the key from him.
Once locked in the little room, which already felt like home to her, she emptied the contents of the duffel bag into the postal box and addressed it to Mr. Roberts at the Sheridan drug store. She toyed with the idea of sending it, giving false personal information on the dang form, but realized that it would leave a paper trail leading back to the post office—and her whereabouts. Damn! Of course, she would be moving on soon anyway, and had signed in the hotel register under a pseudonym but the post office was bound to have had security cameras that could easily identify her, and it wouldn’t take long for Jerome or the cops to track her down. She sighed. Maybe she could find another post office and go in disguise, again giving false information? She’d have to get somewhere a long way from here to do that, just to be on the safe side. Biting her lip, she mulled over the idea. She would give it some more thought, and figure out a way to put the plan into action later.
The box was too big to go back into the duffel bag so she pulled her clothes out of her overnight bag and managed to squeeze the box in there. Then she stuffed her clothes into the duffel. She was disappointed not to be able to fit her diary with her clothing, so she slid it into the hold-all with the box, making a mental note to remove it when she had deposited the bag. She might want to write in it later anyhow, so it would be useful to keep it with her.
Okay, back to plan A.
Taking the overnight bag, she headed back out and set off for the bank. She was used to walking so it didn’t take her long to find the nearest town. Almondine was quite busy, and had several large shops. The main road through the town was noisy and people were everywhere. She found the bank at the end of a busy street. It was much bigger than she had expected and she wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing.
“I’d like to rent a safety deposit box please,” she told the elderly lady behind the counter.
“Of course, dear. How big do you need it?”
Carla held up the overnight bag and the lady nodded. She gave her a key and told her how the system worked.
“You’ll need to sign in each time you come,” the lady explained, “and it’s your responsibility to keep this safe.”
It was an unusually shaped key, and Carla attached it to the chain around her neck which held her silver initial pendant. She never took the necklace off and it was long enough to tuck into the top of her T-shirts so no one would notice it anyway.
Carla felt relieved as she locked the bag away in the special box and watched the lady secure it in the bank’s vault. It had cost her almost all of her remaining money but it was worth it. She had signed the paperwork with a false name and tucked her copy into her back pocket as she left. Empty-handed, she went back out into the sunshine to explore the area a little. She’d have to make some more cash if she was going to keep running—and she wondered if she should have splashed out on a motel room after all, but she really didn’t want to sleep rough again.
The sun was high and she was quite warm in her gypsy-top and jeans. She was wearing boots today, having been in sneakers since she’d left Sheridan. She knew she had a few blisters but nothing she couldn’t handle.
Wanting to put some distance between her and the bank, she followed a sign which led out toward the west. Half an hour or so later she arrived in the town of Pelican’s Heath. The main street was quite busy, though not half as congested as the last town she had been through. This place had several small shops, a doctor’s surgery and what seemed to be a couple of office buildings.
“Good morning.” A handsome cowboy lifted his hat and smiled as he passed her.
“Good morning.” Carla beamed. He seemed a few years older than her, but a good-looking guy all the same.
Several other townsfolk greeted her as she meandered through the narrow streets. That girl sure was right about them being friendly around here! It was a very pretty little town, with mountains in the distance, and fields and hills nearby. She spotted a small diner at the end of what appeared to be the main road through town, and her stomach told her it must be lunch time by now.
She could just about afford some coffee and a burger, which she devoured eagerly. After the breakfast she had eaten she didn’t think she could ever eat again, but there must have been something about the fresh air and relief of getting rid of that cash that gave her appetite right back to her. I’ll have to decide how to get the money to Mr. Roberts, but at least it’s safe for now.
“Mind if I join you?”
She looked up into the greenest eyes she had ever seen. A big smile accompanied them and the body attached was to die for. Carla felt a warm, fuzzy feeling in her stomach as she nodded speechlessly and watched the tanned, muscular god sit opposite her. She could smell his spicy aftershave as she breathed him in like he was her life source.
“Hey, Matt, what can I get you?” the young waitress chirped, smiling at him. She must have noticed him arrive.
“I’ll take a hamburger, please, Maisie. Easy on the onions, though—I might want to kiss someone before the day’s out.” He chuckled, and the waitress rolled her eyes with a smirk.
“You want coffee with that?”
“Need you ask?”
She didn’t even bother to write down the order, just giggled and headed back to the counter.
“Hi, I’m Matt Shearer. You new in town?” His smile was contagious and his eyes were mesmerizing.
Carla smiled. “Carla Burchfield.” The words were out of her mouth before she had time to think—not that it was easy to think with this gorgeous hunk in front of her, anyway—and she silently cursed herself for not changing her name.
“Nice to meet you, Carla.” Matt’s strong hand was across the table in an instant and she couldn’t resist snuggling hers into it as they shook. She felt a jolt of electricity shoot through her as they touched, and the warm feeling inside her ignited into a burning flame. “Are you staying around here?”
Carla was tongue-tied by his beauty. He had thick, dark hair that hung in soft waves around his collar and the stubble on his chin gave him a roguish air that she found totally irresistible. He wore jeans and a gray shirt that was partially unbuttoned, allowing a few dark chest hairs to peep through. She nodded.
His meal arrived and they slowly let go of each other’s hand as he took up his cutlery. The waitress smiled as she collected up Carla’s used plate, but she didn’t speak.
Carla sipped her coffee as she watched the gorgeous guy tuck into his meal.
“So, Carla. What do you do?”
His question threw her for a second and she gasped. “Whatever I can find,” she told him as casually as she could.
“There’s a job going over at the general store if you’re looking for work?” He grinned as he told her, obviously noticing her watch him eat.
He licked his lips slowly, and she felt that fire inside her grow into a raging inferno. She liked the idea of working here and seeing him around all the time.
“Really?” Carla couldn’t believe her luck. “I’ve worked in a drug store before. Think they’ll take me on?”
“It’s worth a try. Tell you what—I’ll come over there with you if you like, and put in a good word for you.” He winked and she felt something stir inside her, a little farther down than her tummy. Oh shit!
“You don’t know me,” she reminded him, finishing her drink. “Thanks for the tip off, though, I might give it a try.”
She forced her feet to move and took a deep breath as she walked away from Matt Shearer—and temptation!