Stranger in Cold Creek

By: Paula Graves

Chapter One

The tinkle of the bell attached to the front door of Duncan’s Hardware heralded the arrival of a new customer, though on this frigid March day in the Texas Panhandle, the gust of icy wind blowing through the entryway would have been plenty of warning by itself.

In the fasteners aisle, John Blake winced as the cold seeped under the collar of his jacket and seemed to attach itself to his mending collarbone. The gnawing pain stole his breath for a moment before settling into a bearable ache.

The new arrival was a woman. Tall and rangy, with hair the rusty color of Georgia clay and worn in a simple ponytail, she had alert eyes the color of the gunmetal sky outside. Her rawboned features, free of makeup, were more interesting than beautiful.

She nodded at Gil Duncan, the proprietor, and scanned the shop with those sharp gray eyes, her gaze settling on John and narrowing.

He looked away, feigning a lack of interest, though every nerve in his body tingled to attention.

He felt more than saw her approaching him, but he didn’t look away from the boxes of screws he was studying.

“You’re new in town.”

John looked up at her, finding himself the object of those smoky eyes. Close up, her gaze was sharp, her expression intelligent and curious. She also gave off an air of authority, and he thought the word cop even before she flipped open her jacket to reveal the six-pointed star badge of the Barstow County Sheriff’s Department.

“Yes, I am,” he answered with a mild smile. He was barely an inch taller than she was, and in his current condition, he was fairly sure she could take him down without much trouble. Cooperation was by far the smarter option for him, especially since he wasn’t looking to draw much attention to himself during his hopefully brief stay in Cold Creek, Texas.

“You’re that fellow who’s renting the Merriwether place on Route 7?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her lips twitched a bit at his polite response. “You’re from...North Carolina?”

Not a bad guess, he thought. “Tennessee.”

She gave a nod. “How do you like Cold Creek so far?”

“It’s quiet. Been chilly since I got here.”

“That won’t last,” she warned with a friendly smile that displayed a set of straight, white teeth. She was prettier when she smiled, he decided. “If you’re plannin’ on stayin’ long, that is.”

Was that her way of asking whether he was going to stick around? “So I hear. Hopefully it’s a little less humid than where I’m from.”

The musical tone of her laugh caught him by surprise. “You can bank on that. But it’s windy as all get out, so you need to take care with any open flames. Doesn’t take long for a fire to get out of control in these parts.”

“Hey, Miranda, I got those two-by-fours you ordered in the back,” the florid-cheeked man at the front counter called out. “Wanna meet me back there with your truck?”

“Be right there, Dad,” she called before turning back to John. “I’m Miranda Duncan.” She grinned before adding, “Of the hardware Duncans.”

He laughed. “John Blake. Of the accounting Blakes,” he said in return, wondering if she could tell he was speaking the truth.

It had been a while since he’d used his real name. But Quinn had suggested it, since the people who might want to do him harm knew him by other names. Nobody he’d crossed recently would connect him to some guy named John Blake who lived in Cold Creek, Texas.

Miranda cocked her head for the briefest moment before she smiled at him again. “Welcome to Cold Creek, John Blake. Hope you’ll like it here.” She headed back out the door, letting in another blast of icy wind that made his bones hurt.

Damn shame, he thought, that he rather liked the red-haired deputy, because the last thing he needed to do while he was recuperating in Cold Creek was to make friends with a local cop.

He was here to stay out of sight and let his bones and muscles mend.

In that order.

Gathering up the screws and bits he’d need to repair the wind-battered storm windows of the rental house, he paid at the front counter and headed out to the old Ford pickup Alexander Quinn had purchased for his time here in Texas. The plates were from Garza County, a couple of hours south, registered in the name of a construction company called Blanchard Building. It belonged to an old friend of Quinn’s, who apparently owed the man a favor. If anyone asked, John Blake’s name was on the payroll as a carpenter, and the repair work he was doing on the rental house was all part of the cover.

Quinn was nothing if not thorough.

The wind was strong and icy, hinting there was snow hiding behind the flat gray clouds that hung low over the ridgeline to the east. To the west, there was nothing but scrubland and sky as far as the eye could see.

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