Stranger in Town - By Cheryl Bradshaw


To my husband, Justin, for his unwavering support—and for helping me understand things like guns, wild animals, and fishing. You still owe me a pistol, by the way.

A big thanks to Dr. Brian Reedy at the School of Chemistry and Forensic Science in Australia for answering my forensics questions.

Many thanks to the best editor and gal around, Janet Green (thewordverve), my formatter, Bob Houston, and my superb cover artist, Reese Dante.

Thanks also to Becky Fagnant and Amy Jirsa-Smith, my proofers.

To my friends and family for your continued support.

And finally to Tracy Chapman. “The Promise” is the theme song for this novel.

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?

By what means shall we fortify against it?”

-Abraham Lincoln


Pinedale, Wyoming

October 17, 2010

Six-year-old Olivia Hathaway tiptoed down the center aisle of Maybelle’s Market, stopping once to glance over her shoulder and make sure her mother wasn’t watching. But Mrs. Hathaway was too engrossed in selecting the right card for her sister’s birthday to notice her daughter had slipped away.

Olivia looked left and then right before scooting one aisle over. She peered at the products lining the shelves and then shook her head. “Nope, not this one.”

She frowned and moved on.

The colors from the paint samples on the next aisle were like bright strips of candy, beckoning her to come closer. So she did. She loved plucking the cardstock strips from their slots and adding them to her collection at home. She’d gathered so many over the past few months, her mother had bought her a notebook to glue them all in.

The star-shaped colors were Olivia’s favorite because they weren’t plain and ordinary like the rectangle ones, and they had fun names like “Summer Sparkle” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” She tapped her pointer finger on the top of each card like she was playing a game of “eeny meeny miny moe” and then selected her favorite color: green. She’d always wanted a green room, but her mother said green was for boys and had painted Olivia’s room pink instead.

Olivia held the green star out in front of her and twirled around and around, fascinated with the glitter that had been mixed in to the paint. If only her room could be as beautiful as this. Maybe if she wished hard enough, one day, it would be. She kept that thought in her mind as she spun around one last time before she collided with something hard.

“Hello, Olivia,” a man’s voice said.

A man in a black ball cap and mirrored sunglasses smiled and pointed at the ground. “You dropped something.”

Olivia froze.

“Here, let me get it for you,” he said.

The man scooped up the painted star and held it out in front of Olivia. “Go on, take it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”

Olivia didn’t know why her stomach felt like a bunch of ants were crawling around inside, but she did know the way it made her feel: scared. She wanted to shout for her mother, but when her mouth fell open, nothing came out. She looked down at the ground, hoping when she looked back up, the man would be gone. But he wasn’t.

“Come here, sweet thing,” the man said. “It’s okay. I don’t bite.”

When Olivia didn’t move, the man knelt down in front of her. He lifted up her stiff body and set her down on his knee. “Do you want me to take you back to your mommy?”

Olivia squeezed her eyes shut, but when she opened them, the man’s hands still wound around her tiny arms like a boa constrictor. If he wants to help me find my mommy, why is he holding me so tight?

“How far away is your mommy?” the man said.

Olivia pointed.

“How about this—give me a hug, just a little one, and we’ll look together.” He held a finger out in front of her. “Pinky promise.”

Olivia wanted nothing more than to be back with her mother again. The man’s breath smelled like her mom’s when she hadn’t brushed her teeth in the morning. Olivia leaned in just enough for the man to hold her close, but jerked back when the mountain of stubble on the man’s chin scratched her face. She knew her cheek wasn’t on fire, but it burned like the metal from a seat belt on a hot day.

The man patted Olivia on the back and stood up. “There now, take my hand.”

Olivia looked down. Her fingers were clenched in a tight ball, the edges of her untrimmed nails digging into the soft skin of the palm of