Halfway home, Jay McCassey was having second thoughts about turning down his mother's offer.
Hagerstown, Maryland's Main Street was dark, deserted and cold, and he was kicking himself for choosing to walk the two miles back to his apartment above McCassey's Garage, instead of spending the night in his old room at his parents' house. His mom had offered to make a big breakfast, and his sisters Court, Benni, and Alexa--Lex for short--had promised to be quiet and let him sleep. The vow came from the heart, but they were eleven, ten, and nine years old. Peace and quiet in that house had about as much of a chance of happening as the girls--all named for his mom's late sisters--suddenly deciding boys weren't important. It just wasn't going to happen.
He loved his family--missed his sisters--but Jay decided to go home anyway. At six feet, six inches tall and two hundred and fifty pounds--during weeks he went light on the brownies--camping out in a sleeping bag on the frozen ground the past three nights had taken its toll. He loved hunting with his father, uncles, and cousins, but his body was stiff and sore from spending so much time on the cold ground. Twenty degree temperatures weren't what he considered comfortable for sleeping, not that he'd gotten much rest. Most of the McCassey men--his father and uncles leading the way--still had it in them to be as wild as they'd been as teenagers. Once again, Jay had made the mistake of keeping up with them. Exhausted, all he wanted was to sleep in his own bed.
It wasn't like he was going to be gone long.
On his way out, he'd promised his mom and sisters he'd be back for breakfast. He had to go back, anyway. His gear and weapons were still in the bed of his truck, which he'd left parked in his parents' driveway. The McCassey men had a more than successful hunting trip this year, and after they'd held their traditional drink-a-shot-for-every-deer-they-killed ceremony, Jay had been in no shape to drive.
Hands jammed into his front pockets for warmth, he shook his head against the wind, clearing his little-too-long, loosely curled, dark hair out of his eyes. As he walked, the cold and wind became less of a problem, as all the alcohol he drank became more of one.
If he hadn't been a McCassey, he would've simply veered off the main road and relieved himself in the shadows. But the local law always kept an extra eye on his family. Although he hadn't caused too much trouble himself, his dad, uncles, and cousins had; a few of them were still on parole and probation. It would be just Jay's luck to run into one of Hagerstown's finest, when it was too damn cold for man or beast to be out roaming around. Probably get himself arrested for indecent exposure, too.
No, he'd suck it up and wait until he got back to the garage.
When he walked into the parking lot of the large brick building, Jay detoured away from the door and headed around back; there was no way in hell he was going to wait one minute longer than he had to. He was tough, but there was only so much a man could take.
Leaves crunched under his feet as he approached the woods and came to a stop at the tree line. His back to the wind, Jay blocked out the cold and went about his business. If he hadn't been distracted by a greater need, he would've noticed the absence of his one-year-old German Shepherd long before the dog came loping out of the woods, wagging his tail and jumping around at Jay's feet.
When he was finished and everything was tucked back into its rightful place, Jay knelt in the brush and stroked the animal's body as it circled him. "Where you been, boy?"
Not expecting a reaction, Jay was surprised when the usually obedient dog barked and bolted into the woods. "Hey!" he shouted, not at all thrilled at the prospect of spending more time in the cold, even to find his dog. "Get back here!"
With half a mind to teach the dog a lesson about who was boss, Jay seriously considered leaving him outside all night. But because it was so uncharacteristic for the well trained animal to disobey a command, Jay put one foot in front of the other and reluctantly trekked into the woods.
He'd only walked a few yards when the hair at the nape of his neck prickled. Always one to trust his senses, he stopped, closed his eyes, and listened. It didn't take long to figure out he wasn't alone. Someone was close, too close.
Instead of moving, Jay whistled for his dog. When the animal barked, but didn't come, Jay reached for the .38 Special he kept tucked into the back waistband of his jeans. So accustomed to the feel of the heavy weapon resting against his back, it was like a second skin.
When he felt the absence of the familiar bulge, Jay swore. With the exception of the .22 he kept inside the garage, all his weapons--not just his hunting rifles--were in his truck. Damn. Only an idiot would walk further into the woods unarmed. He knew it was asking for trouble, but when the barking continued, he decided to take his chances. Confused by the dog's behavior, Jay stepped carefully, as he followed the commotion.
Ten yards into the brush, his gut twisted with a warning. The clicking pump of a shotgun echoed from somewhere too close for comfort. A shaky female voice yelled, "Freeze!" as the body it belonged to stepped in front of him.
He did as he was told, but only because she was standing at point-blank range and he didn't want her trigger finger getting itchy. For good measure, Jay raised his hands even with his shoulders. "I'm already frozen, honey. It's damn cold out here."
When he got no response, Jay waited a good thirty seconds before taking a hesitant step forward.
"Don't come any closer!" the girl warned. Her voice may have been louder, but Jay had heard the apprehension, seen the shadow of the large gun waver. She was terrified.
"Fine." He turned his back to her. "Then I'll just go."
He turned back around. "If you don't want me to come closer and don't want me to leave, you've got five seconds to tell me what you do want. You may be standing at close range, but I'm not standing out here all fucking night, with my hands in the air, freezing my ass off."
"Just stay where you are."
Who the hell did she think she was? "I don't think so."
She stepped forward and aimed the weapon at his face, which made him more angry than scared. "I think so...if you don't want to get shot."
That pissed him off.
There were a lot of women in his life--too many--but he didn't allow a damn one of them to tell him what to do, not even his mom, who had long ago quit trying to "mother" him. "This is my property, honey; I'll do what I want. If you've got a problem with that, go ahead and shoot me."
"Who are you?" she demanded.
Jay stared at what little he could see of her in the dark. She sounded young, and wasn't much taller than any of his sisters. He towered over her by at least a good foot and a half. "Who are you?"
"I asked you first."
"I'm not in the mood to play games--"
"Who are you!" The screechy, panicked voice gave away everything she was trying to hide. She wasn't just scared; she was nervous, and probably would shoot him--even if it was by accident--if he pushed her too far.
The dog yelped and retreated at the sound of her loud voice. Despite the growing severity of the situation, Jay wanted to laugh when the animal took shelter behind his legs. "Some watchdog you are," he whispered, and reached out to give the dog's head a reassuring pat.
It was clear they'd be there all night if he didn't answer. As much as he hated to give in, they were both going to freeze to death if he didn't. "Jay McCassey."
"Prove it," she demanded.
"How the hell am I supposed to do that? You want to see some ID?"
"Tell me something only Jay McCassey would know."
"Like what? The whole damn town knows everything about me."
"You tell me," she said, harshly.
"I don't know." Irritated, he paused and shrugged. "I played football and baseball in high school."
"Everyone knows that. Tell me something else."
"I'm a mechanic."
"That's not good enough! The McCassey family is full of mechanics. You work on diesel engines. Everyone knows that, too."
Okay, so whoever this girl is, she knows him. A little less wary, Jay relaxed his arms and let them fall to his side.
"You and your Aunt Georgia got matching tattoos on your fifteenth birthday," she said, as if he didn't know. "Tell me what and where they are, and what happened when your dad found out."
Jay's breath caught. Everyone knew he and Georgia--his best friend, despite their nine year age difference--had matching tattoos, but no one outside the family knew what happened when Judd discovered what he and Georgia had done. How the hell did this girl find out about something he'd never told anyone?
"Our last name," he answered, more out of curiosity about how she knew, than out of fear she'd shoot him. Although it was becoming more of a concern. Shotguns weren't light, and Jay was beginning to worry she'd accidentally pull the trigger in her effort to keep the weapon pointed up at him. Whether she was aware of it or not, the barrel had already crept down to his chest. He wanted to have that gun out of her hands before it had a chance to slip any lower. Since the mere thought caused him to break into a sweat, he told her what she wanted to hear. "Hers is on the inside of her right wrist, mine's on my back."
Jay closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He didn't like thinking about it, had never even said the words out loud. "My dad and I got into a fight when he found out." Since most of the McCasseys had ink somewhere on their bodies, Jay hadn't understood his father's anger at the time. Later, he figured out it was because he'd contributed to the stereotype.
"We were arguing in the garage, yelling and shoving at each other. Georgia tried to step between us," he explained, seeing it all as if it was again happening right in front of him. "My dad started to take a swing at me and she got too close. He hit her instead of me. She fell backwards. The side of her head shattered the glass in Rose's office door and knocked her out cold. Glass and blood were everywhere; she wound up with staples instead of stitches because the wound was so big." He squinted at the shadow, trying to see the girl's face. "Georgia's son, Hoyt, was a little over a year old. She was pregnant with Callie, but didn't know it until she wound up in the hospital.
"That was the first time I ever saw Georgia's husband, Wade, angry enough to raise his voice," Jay told her, seeing clear as day the look on both Wade's and Judd's faces when Georgia's head hit the glass. "Even before he was done yelling, he hit my dad so hard, he broke his hand and my dad's jaw."
The girl sighed loudly and disengaged her weapon. Only when she started to lower it, she dropped it as her legs buckled.
"Whoa!" Jay sprang forward and caught her as she collapsed. Unconscious, her dead weight was heavier than her small frame suggested. Still, he scooped her up into his arms with little effort.
Jay picked up the girl's weapon and whistled for his dog, who wagged his tail and fell into step behind him. "Sure, now you listen," Jay mumbled. But the dog was oblivious, happily dancing around Jay's feet like he'd won the game.
In front of the building, Jay balanced the girl against his chest as he reached down and opened the large, middle bay garage door just enough for them to fit under. When they were inside, he allowed the door to fall closed, leaving it, as always, unlocked.
Jay made his way through the work area toward the back of the building without turning on a light. He'd grown up in the garage and knew it like the back of his hand, even in the dark. When he reached the set of metal stairs leading to the studio apartment, he climbed them two at a time, the dog right behind him.
The first thing Jay did was set the girl's gun down. With the intention of sorting out the firearm situation later, he used the caution of an experienced hunter to gently set the double-barrel, sawed-off shotgun against the corner wall. Then, he crossed the room and laid the girl on his bed.
He wondered why she'd passed out. Was she sick? Cold? Tired?
With more than three days growth of stubble and in desperate need of a shower and clean clothes, his appearance was enough to terrify anyone...but the girl hadn't been afraid of him. In fact, when he'd finally convinced her he really was Jay McCassey, she'd seemed relieved.
Puzzled, Jay stood motionless in front of her, staring. She looked to be about his age, maybe a little younger. Her hair was as dark and wavy as his, only a bit shorter. At least it looked shorter; it was hard to tell with it as windblown as it was. Her cheeks and nose--sporadically dotted with freckles--were bright red, as if she'd been in the cold for a long time.
Even in her unconscious state, she was shivering. That bothered him. Her oversized, buttoned-to-the-neck flannel jacket was nowhere near warm enough for the frigid temperatures the western panhandle of Maryland had been experiencing. She had no hat, scarf, or gloves, and her feet were protected by nothing but a pair of pink high-top Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. She'd be lucky if she didn't have frostbite.
In an effort to get her warm, Jay pulled three heavy wool blankets from the closet and draped them over her. He turned the thermostat up to eighty and put on a pot of coffee.
While waiting for the stubbornly slow coffeemaker, Jay stood at the foot of the bed and went back to staring at the girl. Something about her pale, innocent face was vaguely familiar. He'd seen her before, but when and where was anybody's guess. He would've been able to come up with an answer if he wasn't so damn tired. As it was, it'd been a stroke of luck he'd been able to remember his name and keep the girl from shooting him. Since she was breathing and didn't seem to be in any immediate danger, Jay didn't see a reason to wake her. If she was that tired, the rest would do her good.
Already feeling the heat, Jay removed his heavy camouflage hunting jacket, tossed it onto a chair, and went to check the coffeepot. Only half full, he cursed the stubborn contraption and gave up. Caffeine was the last thing he needed right now, anyway.
With the intention of preparing to take a shower, Jay sat on the opposite side of the bed and removed the insulated, steel-toe boots he'd worn hunting. Without the energy to toss them anywhere, he left the size fourteens where they lay, well aware he'd forget they were there and trip over them when he got up. His shirts were next to go. He wasn't much for warm temperatures, anyway, and was already hot in the two long underwear shirts that had kept his body separate from the cold. Once he'd shed his socks, Jay sat still on the mattress.
He glanced at the girl. Still buried under the blankets, she hadn't moved. She was alive, and for the moment, that was the only thing Jay had the energy to care about. With a sigh, he gave in to the need to relax and stretched out on the bed. His forearm draped across his face to shield the light from his eyes, the protest of his temperamental coffeemaker was the last sound Jay heard before falling into an exhausted sleep.