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Authors: Iris Johansen

Last Bridge Home

BOOK: Last Bridge Home
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One of Iris Johansen’s most beloved
tales …

She inhaled sharply as she spotted a man standing on the stone steps at the front door of the cottage.

A man she had never seen before.

She pulled her car into the driveway and slowed it to a stop. There was something very controlled about the man’s deliberate approach. Controlled. What an odd word to come to mind, she thought. His deeply tanned face was completely impassive, yet she had the impression he was exerting a tremendous effort to subdue forces that were seething below the surface of his calm exterior.

Standing beside her window, he bent down slightly to look at her. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

He was gazing at her with an odd, almost hungry intentness. The thought that he was only inches away, separated from her by a flimsy sheet of glass, sent a sudden shudder of fear through her. His eyes were darkly brilliant, his black brows heavy, and his bone structure was too strongly defined to ever be termed handsome. Strength. A strength so powerful it was a shock to her senses. She found herself staring at him in wide-eyed fascination.

He frowned. “For God’s sake, stop looking at me like that.” His voice was rough and slightly husky. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help you.”

BOOKS BY IRIS JOHANSEN

Capture the Rainbow
A Summer Smile
Stormy Vows/Tempest at Sea
Stalemate
An Unexpected Song
Killer Dreams
On the Run
Countdown
Blind Alley
Firestorm
Fatal Tide
Dead Aim
No One to Trust
Body of Lies
Final Target
The Search
The Killing Game
The Face of Deception
And Then You Die
Long After Midnight
The Ugly Duckling
Lion’s Bride
Dark Rider
Midnight Warrior
The Beloved Scoundrel
The Magnificent Rogue
The Tiger Prince
Last Bridge Home
The Golden Barbarian
Reap the Wind
Storm Winds
The Wind Dancer

T
HE GRAY
F
ORD SEDAN WASN’T PARKED ON THE
tree-shadowed side road today.

Elizabeth Ramsey loosened her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel as she slowed her car. She sighed with relief. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been clutching the wheel until the tension suddenly flowed out of her like air rushing from a pricked balloon.

Stupid. She was being so incredibly stupid. She’d only seen the car parked there four times. It was possible there was no one in the car. Perhaps the driver was a hunter or some one as innocuous as a bird watcher. She had never felt afraid before on this lonely stretch of road, which led to Mill Cottage. It had just
been the way home. The road she loved most in the entire world.

It must be pregnant lady’s nerves, she decided with a grimace. She had never thought she would be prone to this sort of weakness, but she had learned she wasn’t nearly as pragmatic as she had once believed in the eight months since Mark had died and … She firmly blocked the thought before it could take root and flourish as the familiar barbs of pain. Think about the baby. The baby. Don’t think about Mark or the past.

Her hand left the steering wheel to rest on the taut swelling of her stomach through the cotton of her loose blue shirt. Life. Soon. All she had to do was hold on a little longer, and then the loneliness would be over for both of them. There was a slight movement beneath her palm and her lips curved in a warm smile of delight. It was almost as if Andrew had read her thoughts and was trying to reassure her.

The tender smile still lingered on her lips as her hand returned to the steering wheel. Maybe this imagining business wasn’t so bad after all. Not if it brought comfort as well as those silly spurts of panic. She had been foolish to worry.

She speeded up as she drove into the old covered bridge and the familiar rumble of the planks beneath the tires of her station wagon
murmured a soothing chant of the homecoming that was just beyond the next turn in the road. She left the bridge, negotiated the serpentine curve, and Mill Cottage came into view. She immediately felt a surge of peace and reassurance. The ivy-covered stone cottage was very old and had a serenity about it which was rarely found in modern architecture. From her seat in the car, she could see the ancient oak paddle wheel that had powered the mill and furnished the first American Cartwrights with their livelihood. The wheel was still now, and no longer churned the waters of the smooth silver stream winding through the meadow and into the distant woods. Most of the trees in the woods were bare, only the pines retained their greenery. She shivered, and looked once again at the cottage. Home. Inviting, welcoming, warmth in a world that would soon know winter. She rounded the last bend in the road, and the driveway of the cottage appeared before her.

She inhaled sharply as she spotted a man standing on the stone steps at the front door of the cottage. A man she had never seen be fore. Immediately her gaze flew to the car parked in the driveway. It was a dark green pickup truck, not a gray Ford sedan.

She pulled her car into the driveway and slowed it to a stop. Nerves or no nerves, it
wouldn’t hurt to be cautious. She kept her windows rolled up and the doors locked. The man, who was coming down the steps now, didn’t look menacing, but he didn’t look like the Caspar Milquetoast type either. There was something very controlled about his deliberate approach. Controlled. What an odd word to come to mind, she thought. His deeply tanned face was completely impassive, yet she had the impression he was exerting a tremendous effort to subdue forces that were seething below the surface of his calm exterior.

Standing beside her window, he bent down slightly to look at her. He spoke in a tone a level above normal so she could hear through the glass. “I’m glad you’re being cautious. It’s very lonely out here for a woman alone. I’ve been waiting for you.”

He was gazing at her with an odd, almost hungry, intentness. The thought that he was only inches away, separated from her by a flimsy sheet of glass, sent a sudden shudder of fear through her. His eyes were darkly brilliant, his black brows heavy, and his bone structure was too strongly defined to ever be termed handsome. Strength. A strength so powerful it was a shock to her senses. She found herself staring at him in wide-eyed fascination.

He frowned. “For God’s sake, stop looking
at me like that.” His voice was rough and slightly husky. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help you. I’d never—” He broke off and drew a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry if I startled you. Let’s begin again. My name is Jon Sandell and Mark Ramsey was my cousin. Per haps he mentioned me?”

Jon Sandell. She felt a swift swell of relief and hurriedly rolled down the window. “Of course he did. I’m very glad to meet you at last.” She grinned and wrinkled her nose at him. “Though you probably think I’m flighty as a loon to treat you as if you were Charles Manson. I’m not usually this uptight. I guess I have a case of prenatal jitters.” She opened the door and swung her khaki-clad legs carefully to the ground. It was a massive undertaking for her to get herself out from behind the steering wheel these days. Jan Sandell stepped forward and lifted her easily from the seat and onto her feet.

“Oh, thank you, that helped a lot. I’ll be with you in just a minute. I have to get the groceries out of the car. I stopped at the supermarket on the way home from school, which delayed me a bit. Have you been waiting long?”

“No.” He was frowning again. “You shouldn’t be out here by yourself. It may have been all right before, but now that you’re—”

“—big as a house,” she finished for him. She shut the car door and went around to the back of the station wagon. “This is my home. Where else would I go?” She unlocked and opened the gate. “Besides, I’m not alone. The Spauldings have a farm two miles down the road, and I have Sam.”

He stiffened. “Sam?”

She gazed at him in puzzlement. Why was he so disturbed? Then the answer came to her. Mark had said Jon Sandell was the only family he possessed. They must have been very close. It was only natural that Mark’s cousin would be upset to find out there was an other man in her life only eight months after Mark’s death.

“Sam is my Heinz 57,” she said with a gentle smile. “He’s half Great Dane and half I-don’t-know-what. I’m surprised you haven’t seen him. I let him run loose while I’m at school.”

“You’re still attending the university in Al bany?” he asked as he stopped her from reaching for the grocery bags. A small amount of tension seemed to have disappeared from his demeanor. “You go on inside. It’s cold out here now that the sun’s gone down. I’ll bring these in.”

“You’ll stay for dinner? I put a stew in the Crockpot this morning. There will be plenty for two.”

He shook his head. “I can’t stay but I’d like a cup of coffee and a little conversation, if it’s not too much trouble.”

She shook her head as she turned and headed for the steps. “Of course it’s not too much trouble. I’d like to talk to you too.” She glanced back over her shoulder as she un locked the heavy Dutch door. A smile lit her face with glowing warmth, and she said, “Mark was a stranger in these parts and not many people got to know him well enough to realize how wonderful he was. I think one of the things I missed most after he died was not being able to talk to someone who loved him as much as I did.”

He was gazing at her face with the same in tent expression she had noticed earlier. “I wanted to come to you then, but they wouldn’t let me.”

“I understood why you couldn’t come to the funeral. Mark had told me you are out of the country most of the time.”

He reached in the wagon for a grocery sack. “That’s a fairly accurate way of phrasing it. Well, I’m here now. Why don’t you go inside.”

His last words were a command, spoken with the casual confidence of someone accustomed to being obeyed. Whoever “they” were, they must have been exceptionally high up in the echelon of Sandell’s company to prevent
him from doing anything he wanted to do. She saluted. “I’ll put the coffee on, sir.”

He looked up, and for the flicker of a moment there was a warm smile on his hard face. “Was I being authoritarian? I was in the military for a while and I guess you never really lose a sense of command.”

She should have realized Sandell was a military man. He certainly looked the part, she thought. His shoulders were broad and powerful beneath the brown plaid of his mackinaw, and he moved with crisp precision.

“I guess you don’t.” She swung open the door and left it ajar for him as she moved briskly down the hall to the large kitchen which stretched the length of the rear of the cottage.

Switching on the light, she hurried over to the counter and plugged in the coffee maker, which she had readied before she had left that morning. Then she knelt and touched a lighted match to the kindling in the brick fireplace, watching with satisfaction as the fire sprang cozily to life. It was her routine to have all the preparations for the evening out of the way when she walked out the door in the morning. She had discovered early in her pregnancy that by the time she put in a full day at school, she was often too tired for anything but a bath and bed.

BOOK: Last Bridge Home
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