The thud from the front porch was definitely a knock.
Kelli Carpenter jumped, clutching the plastic shower curtain to keep from slipping. “Just a minute,” she called as she reached across the cascading spray to twist the taps off. So much for the hot, steamy shower she’d been dreaming about while she lay, freezing her butt off, in a stinking mud puddle waiting for the perfect shot. She squirmed back into her grimy jeans.
From the road, she heard the distinctive roar of Harley engines. The knock repeated, growing more insistent.
“Take it easy,” she muttered. Without bothering to towel off, she slipped her sweatshirt over her head, working her damp arms into muddy sleeves while she headed for the door, her mind racing through the possibilities of who would be there. Only park rangers ever came by. But they wouldn’t pound unless something was wrong. And if they did, they’d call her name. The familiar fear gnawed at her. Had someone found her?
Shit. She’d forgotten her contacts and although she doubted any of the rangers would notice—or care—she hadn’t survived as Kelli Carpenter this long by neglecting the details. She hurried back to the bathroom and inserted the lenses, turning her pale gray eyes into a nondescript brown and grabbed her oversize tortoiseshell-framed glasses. “Coming!” She hurried through the living room and peered through the window.
Her stomach flipped at the sight of a total stranger on her porch. Hardly anybody knew about this field station, tucked away in the Washington mountains. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of a gray pickup truck, one she’d passed on the road in her haste to get home.
Calm down. He’s lost and wants directions. Tell him what he needs and he’ll be gone.
“Yes?” she called through the door, trying to remember if she’d locked it.
“I’m looking for Kelli Carpenter,” a deep male voice said.
Kelli. Not Casey. Okay. She inched the door open. Swallowed. Twice. A man waited on her porch, wearing jeans and a windbreaker over a black turtleneck, holding an olive-green duffel bag. He stood at least six-two, with black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. Even the fact that his face and a razor hadn’t kept company in several days didn’t detract from his raw good looks.
“I’m Kelli.” She forced herself to meet his eyes. Dark chocolate brown, they grabbed and wouldn’t let go. He stared, a little longer than necessary and she crossed her arms over her chest, suddenly all too aware her bra lay on the bathroom floor.
She took a step backward into the dimmer light of the living room. “Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing.” His startled expression dissolved into neutrality. “I…um…I suppose I’d expected a man.” He took half a step forward.
Avoiding his eyes, she took a deep breath and managed a quick smile. “Can I help you with something?”
He dropped his duffel and extended a hand. “Sorry. I’m Blake Windsor. I’m here to repair a dormitory cabin. If you’ll point me to my room, I can put my stuff away and take a look before it gets dark.”
She ignored the offer of a handshake and suppressed a shudder at the thought of a stranger invading her home. “I’m afraid there must be some mistake. There’s no room for you to stay here.”
He raised an eyebrow and looked beyond her. “I can take the couch. No problem. Jack Stockbridge said you’d be expecting me.”
Her mind whirled. Knowing her boss’s name didn’t mean he was legit. Camp Getaway was hardly a secret project. A ripple of fear crept up her scalp. The way he looked at her when she opened the door, like he was studying her and not in a man-woman way. A man hadn’t looked at her like that in a long time, but not so long she didn’t recognize the difference. Had someone connected her to Robert after all these years? No. If they had, that man on the porch would be here with handcuffs, not a duffel bag.
“I haven’t heard from Jack Stockbridge and I’m sure he’d have told me if someone was coming.” Don’t antagonize him. She kept her tone civil. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Windsor, but I suggest you start down the mountain. These roads can be tough to navigate in the dark.”
The shrill ring of the telephone interrupted. She twisted her head toward the kitchen. Should she answer the call there, where she could keep an eye on this stranger? Or take it in her office, where it was private? But that would leave this man free in her space. She waited for the answering machine.
Jack Stockbridge’s voice floated across the room. “Kelli? Jack. Are you back? If you’re there, Kiddo, pick up.”
Kelli dashed to the kitchen and picked up the receiver on the red wall phone. Its old-fashioned rotary dial stared at her like a multi-eyed alien.
“I’m here, Jack.” She cocked her head at her visitor and raised her eyebrows. With a nod of understanding, he backed out the door.
“I’ve been trying to reach you all day. You ever answer the phone? Or check your messages?”
“Hey, I’ve been out, doing what you pay me for. You know how hard it is to get decent bird pictures?” She paused, waiting for him to say the inevitable, hoping she was wrong.
“You love it and you know it.” He cleared his throat. “There’s been a change in plans. Thornton’s pushed up the schedule. Wants to open right after Labor Day.”
“Labor Day? That’s not even two weeks from now. What happened to spring? You know our deal. I do the environmental studies—alone—and then you send in the labor crews.”
“Kiddo, I know, but there’s no way to finish on time without help. If we lose the funding, it’s all over. I can’t replace you at this late date and the dorm cabin has to be repaired, pronto. I’ve sent a handyman to take care of it. I’m sure you’ll manage.”
She glanced at the front door. “Six-two, long hair?”
“Yep. Blake Windsor.”
A lead ball filled her stomach. “He’s here.”