A Wanted Man

By: Jennifer Morey
Chapter 1

Penny Darden saw the old, rickety barn through the arch of tree branches and cold nostalgia gripped her. She stopped walking. Tall wildflowers swayed down the center of the curving one-lane dirt road. Beautiful. Picturesque. But full of a secret past.

Growing up on a Midwestern farm, Penny hadn’t escaped fast enough to city life. Metropolitan bike paths and noisy, multilane highways were her thing now. The barn, with its lonely mystery of fading red paint and old, splintering fences, tapped into the girl who’d loved to explore wild, rolling hills and abandoned buildings. She’d long ago left that life—and the girl—behind.

Resuming her walk, she emerged from the trees and spotted a Colonial-style house that stood just as neglected as the barn, door and windows boarded up, just like the farmhouse of her childhood. After her mother sold the place, it had gone to disrepair. She hadn’t understood how lonely her childhood had been until her senior year in high school. That realization had driven her away from Midwestern life.

Jax hadn’t told her there were historic buildings on his property. Maybe half the source of her unwanted curiosity stemmed from that. Her boyfriend had said the only difference between his second home in this remote area of the Wasatch Mountains and his upscale apartment in Salt Lake City was the view. How wrong he’d been.

Reaching the double doors of the weathered barn, she lifted the heavy, awkward latch securing one of the doors and pushed.

Dust particles drifted through the newly disturbed air, sparkling in sunlight. The smell of old hay took her back in time. Old everything. Old wood. Old leather. Old hides. She used to love playing in hay, getting dirty all day and fighting her mother when told to take a shower.

A white pickup truck parked at the far end stopped her short. Partially hidden by stacked hay, it seemed so out of place. She walked to the clean, new vehicle and saw a dent in the driver’s-side door. Peering through the window, she noticed nothing odd except newness and cleanliness. Immaculate cleanliness. She tried the door handle. Locked.

What was a nice truck doing in an old barn like this? Had the previous owner left it? That didn’t seem likely. Why leave a vehicle that was worth something? Maybe the engine blew up. Walking to the front, she saw no plate. Nothing on the back, either. Someone had just dumped it here.

While that struck her as unusual, Penny supposed there must be an explanation. As she turned away, a tack room drew her back to her childhood again. She and her best friend had ridden horses almost every weekend. She fingered an old bridle and then brushed off the dirt that transferred to her skin. Some tools and a few other pieces of tack, all worn with age, kept her in the past until she caught sight of the truck again.

Who were the previous owners? Why had they sold? Had the homestead gone to shambles after the sale or had something happened to force them to leave? She didn’t know how long Jax had owned the place.

Penny walked outside, seeing just a portion of the truck before latching the door. She looked toward the boarded-up house and let another wave of lonely nostalgia sweep her before hiking back up the hill.

Her mother had sold their farm when Penny started college and she moved to an old house in town. Cheboygan. Thinking of her mom only intensified the loneliness that pressed into her.

When had she last seen her mother? Christmas? They hadn’t talked in a while. Penny had gotten so busy with her job, she’d even ignored her mother’s calls. She missed her, of course she missed her. She loved the difference between her life here and her mother’s back in that sleepy northern Michigan town.

At the top of the hill, she followed the dirt road along a white fence, feeling better now that she was out in the open with swaying wildflowers keeping her company. Still, the ties of her past tugged. Birds chirped and a mosquito buzzed in front of her face. She swatted that away, her trip to childhood vanishing. Time to go back to the city.

Reaching the end of the dirt road, she turned onto Jax’s paved driveway. His house came into view and she saw him standing on the porch, holding a cup of coffee. He looked much different in jeans and a flannel shirt than the pricey suits she usually saw him in at work. His close-cropped dark hair fit the businessman more than the mountain man. In fact, he didn’t strike her as a mountain man at all. His log home was modern, not rugged. His polish and sophistication and social appetite had attracted her when she’d first met him.

She smiled as she neared. “What a beautiful place.”

He didn’t return her smile. In fact, his reaction seemed off.

“Where have you been?” he asked with forced amenability.

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