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Star Bright
by Catherine Anderson

Published: 2009-01-06
Mass Market Paperback : 432 pages
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Faking her own death is the only way Rainie Hall can hope to escape her brutal, murderous husband. Now, with a new identity, she finds refuge in the rural community of Crystal Falls, Oregon, where she starts work on a horse ranch run by rugged, dangerously good-looking Parker ...
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Faking her own death is the only way Rainie Hall can hope to escape her brutal, murderous husband. Now, with a new identity, she finds refuge in the rural community of Crystal Falls, Oregon, where she starts work on a horse ranch run by rugged, dangerously good-looking Parker Harrigan. Parker's word is his honor, and he can't tolerate liars. When he realizes that Rainie hasn't been truthful with him, he's furious, then concerned. Clearly she's a woman in trouble, and if she'll trust him, he'll do right by her. But as their initial attraction blossoms into a deep and thrilling passion, Rainie fears that she can never escape retribution from the man who has sworn to kill her. Parker swears to protect Rainie no matter what, but even he can't help wondering whether all his strength and ingenuity can save the love of his life from a determined psychopath....

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Once Rainie settled in to work, she found it difficult to concentrate. She kept expecting her boss to storm into the office to confront her about all the lies she’d told on her application. What would she say to him? I’m sorry I fibbed? It wasn’t in Rainie’s nature to deceive people, so she had no experience in how to handle it when the truth came out. Parker Harrigan struck her as being a direct, honest man. He wouldn’t be happy if he discovered that she’d played him for a chump.

An hour into sorting through the office rubble, Rainie froze in motion when he suddenly burst into the room. Oh, God, he’d found her out. A scowl drew his black eyebrows together over his prominent nose. His firm mouth had thinned into a grim line. When he settled those intense, brown eyes on her, Rainie’s skin felt the burn.

“Have you seen my checkbook?”

Rainie struggled to regain her composure. “I, um, didn’t think you used one much.”

“I don’t.” He advanced on his desk to paw through the clutter. “Damn it. I’ve got a new guy deliverin’ hay. He won’t bill it to my account. Says he was told to collect payment on delivery at all his drops, and his boss isn’t answerin’ the phone.”

Rainie opened a drawer and tugged out a large, dark blue binder notebook. “Is this it?”

“You’re my guardian angel.”

He opened the book and bent to fill out a draft. When he failed to document the amount in the register, Rainie did it for him.

“Thanks,” he said as he exited the room, banging the door closed behind him.

Rainie was trembling. After closing the checkbook, she hugged her waist and closed her eyes, so shaken that she almost wished she hadn’t taken this job. Her nerve endings were raw with tension. Her mind kept circling the fact that he was bound to check up on her, sooner or later. At this point, she hoped it would be sooner. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand this waiting.

What had she been thinking yesterday to interview for a high-paying, permanent position? People like her took jobs at fast food joints to avoid any questions. They didn’t set themselves up for detection by accepting sixty thousand a year in wages, plus benefits. Employers who offered that kind of package were successful business owners who hadn’t gotten where they were by being naïve.

* * *

Sweat beaded on Parker’s face as he swung another hay bale off the stack and carried it into the storage shed. Normally, he used the forklift, but right now he needed the physical exertion. It was a habit he’d developed over his lifetime. When confronted with a problem, he worked while he sorted his way through it.

Anna Pritchard was definitely a puzzle he needed to figure out.

Parker had visited the office precisely four times over the course of the morning, and the lady had nearly jumped out of her skin each time. At first, he’d chalked it off to nervousness because it was her first day on the job, but then he’d noticed the fear in her eyes. Unless he was misreading her, she was terrified of him. How the hell did that make sense?

Parker had never spent much time analyzing how he might be perceived by others, so he didn’t go around guarding his every word or gesture. People either accepted him, or they didn’t. He supposed it was fair to say that his manner could be a little gruff sometimes, and he’d be the first to admit he completely lacked the sophisticated polish a lot of guys had. But never, to his knowledge, had he terrified anyone.

Something about her wasn’t right. It reminded him of when a picture was slightly crooked on a wall. He always noticed immediately, and it bugged the hell out of him until he straightened it. It was that way with Anna. Something about her just didn’t line up. He wasn’t a boisterous man. He didn’t lose his temper at the drop of a hat and punch holes in the walls. He seldom raised his voice in anger. So what was it about him that frightened her?

Parker couldn’t say. He only knew that Anna trembled in her secondhand boots whenever he entered the office. Weird. He didn’t know what her deal was, but he hoped she got it ironed out. He didn’t relish the thought of working with a woman who jumped a foot every time he so much as looked at her.

For the rest of the afternoon, Parker did his best to put Anna at ease, but by the end of the day, he’d decided that nothing short of a Valium chased by two fingers of whiskey would do the trick. He gazed thoughtfully after her rattletrap Mazda as she drove away. The lady was a puzzle, no question about it. She’d done a great job of straightening his office. It wasn’t organized to her satisfaction yet, but he felt sure it soon would be. She’d also made fast work of logging today’s expenditures, not only the hay delivery, but also several nickel-and-dime purchases, one from a traveling salesman who peddled Parker’s favorite brand of equine supplements. Normally payouts like that never got recorded because Parker forgot to do it.

All and all, he was happy with her work performance so far. No complaints there. But her odd behavior disturbed him. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was too late to do anything about it today, but first thing tomorrow morning, he needed to check out her references.

* * *

When Anna got home, she kicked off the boots, sank onto a kitchen chair, and lay forward over the table, resting her head on her folded arms. Nervous tension had drained her empty. Her limbs felt as if they weighed a thousand pounds each, and she had a painful crick in her neck she couldn’t massage away. At least Parker Harrigan hadn’t made any phone calls today, she reminded herself. Instead he seemed willing to accept her at face value. As crazy as it was, that only made her feel guiltier for lying to him.

Thomas leaped up onto the tabletop to nuzzle Rainie’s hair. She smiled wearily and sat back to scratch the cat behind his ears. “Hi, there, skinny boy. Did you miss me, or are you just hungry?”

He started to purr, the sound a deep rumble in his chest. Rainie continued petting him for a moment and then pushed up from the chair to feed him. She’d purchased some cat food yesterday, but the tom seemed to prefer the kibble mixed with tuna.

As she opened a can, she said, “I guess I can afford a can of tuna per day now that I’m making good money and have health insurance.”

The cat rubbed against her bare calves while she prepared his meal. After setting the bowl down, Rainie returned to the table to watch him eat.

“Let’s just hope I can keep the job,” she added. “If he finds out I lied to get it, he may fire me on the spot. Then I’ll be lucky to get work at Burger King.”

No reply from the cat. Rainie sighed. Bottom line was, she missed her friends. Oh, how she wished she could unload on Margaret right now or hear Janet crack one of her silly jokes. Smiling slightly, Rainie tried to imagine what her irreverent friend might say. A cowboy? They’re all dumber than boxes of rocks. That’s why they engrave their names on their belts, so they know who they are when they put their pants on in the morning. Still grinning, Rainie rested her chin on the heel of her hand, gazing thoughtfully at Thomas. Maybe, just maybe, Parker Harrigan wouldn’t check out her references. He hadn’t bothered to record a single check that he’d written today, and he’d tossed the receipts at his desk, not even looking to see where they landed. Being so meticulous by nature, she found that inconceivable, but it took all different types to make the world go round.

Feeling slightly better, Rainie got up to fix herself something to eat. Her habitual comfort foods, tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich sounded good. When her food was ready, she sat on the living room sofa. Thomas joined her on the cushion to beg for morsels of cheese. Rainie shared her meal with him, then settled back to watch the news. For about ten minutes, the commentator focused on world affairs. Then Rainie saw her own face flash onto the screen. She’d grown accustomed to that over the last few weeks, but it still never failed to startle her.

What really happened to Lorraina Danning? the news anchor asked the audience. Did she accidentally fall overboard, or was she pushed? It’s a mystery that the police have been unable to solve. Rainie’s picture vanished from the screen, and the camera zoomed in on a live news conference. Detective Raymond Lord, with the King County police, stood at a podium. Expression solemn, blue eyes piercing, he announced that the FBI was officially taking over the investigation. The King County task force would, however, continue to lend support, assisting FBI agents in whatever way it could. Rainie’s face came back on the screen as the commentator resumed her narrative. No body, no clues. Lorraina Danning had vanished without a trace.

Staring at her own likeness, Rainie touched her cheek with a trembling fingertip. The picture had been taken before she’d gotten the scar, and she’d lost some weight as well. The sleek brown hair that had once been her trademark was now a wildly curly mane, as blond as it was brown. She no longer wore expensive clothing, either. Over all, she looked completely different. Or so she hoped. But what if Parker Harrigan was watching this newscast and recognized her?

Composure shattered, Rainie went to the kitchen to open a bottle of merlot. It was becoming a habit, she realized. Her nerves were shot, and she was self-medicating. Not a good thing. Problem was, she couldn’t afford to go another night without sleep, and the wine would make her drowsy.

* * *

The following day, Parker got busy in the morning and couldn’t find time to check out Anna’s references. When things slowed down shortly after lunch, he decided to do his detective work at the house. After seeing Anna several more times, he felt a little foolish for his suspicions. No one with big, guileless eyes like hers could be a practiced liar. That said, her behavior continued to raise warning flags in his mind. She was still as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs whenever he entered the office.

Parker’s first call was to Pepperdine University. He was transferred from the main offices to those of Seaver College, a subsidiary school under the Pepperdine umbrella that apparently offered on-campus undergraduate degrees in accounting. A woman named Anna Pritchard had indeed taken that coursework and received her degree from Seaver in 1981. Wrong person. The Anna working out in his office stable was only twenty-five. Parker asked the woman on the phone to please check her records for another Anna Pritchard who’d probably gotten her accounting degree in 2004 or 2005. Dead end. No one named Anna Pritchard had earned an accounting degree at Seaver College since 1981.

As Parker ended the call, his blood began to heat with anger. Next he called one of Anna’s former employers. Some little old lady in Orange County answered the phone. She’d never heard of the company Parker named. He got off the phone and turned to his computer. A Google search for the company brought up no matches. Parker double-checked the name of the place and typed it in again. Still nothing. If the company existed, it wasn’t listed in this search engine.

Before jumping to conclusions, Parker grimly placed several more phone calls. Once, he got a small child on the phone. The next time, he got a grease monkey at some gas station in Chico. At least the lady seemed to know her California area codes. So, what did that tell him, other than that she’d probably once lived in that state? It sure as hell told him nothing more—except that Anna Pritchard had lied on her application.

Parker was pissed. He seldom lied to anyone, and he expected the same courtesy in return. He tried to calm down as he headed for the stable, but it was an effort in futility. He’d trusted her. When he remembered their conversation the day before yesterday, humiliation seared his cheeks. She’d made him look stupid. Correction, he’d made himself look stupid by allowing himself to be taken in by those innocent, hazel eyes.

Anna was standing at a file cabinet, hands full of papers, when he burst into the office. He made a conscious effort not to slam the door closed behind him.

“We need to talk,” he bit out.

Her face drained of color. “About?”

“Sit down.”

She put the papers on top of the cabinet and went to sit in her chair. Today she wore a fake suede skirt that had seen better times and a sleeveless blouse with one button that didn’t quite match the rest. As Parker advanced on her, he noticed two things, that her face grew paler by the second and that the cherry surface of her work area gleamed with fresh polish.

“I don’t appreciate being lied to,” he said evenly.

Agitated and needing something to do with his hands, he reached for the granite paperweight on the blotter. At his movement, she flinched and jerked up her right arm to shield her face, clearly convinced he meant to strike her. Whoa. Parker was angry. He’d be the first to admit that. But he’d never hit a woman in his life, not even his little sister when they’d fought as kids.

Fingertips still resting on the paperweight, Parker studied his frightened bookkeeper with mounting bewilderment. She had a small scar on her left cheek. He’d noticed it the first time he saw her. It still bore the pinkness of a recent wound. Now that he examined it more closely, a very unpleasant possibility sprang to his mind.

In his younger years, he had occasionally gotten into honky-tonk brawls, and he’d seen his share of cheeks laid open by the force of a man’s fist. Had some jerk struck her? The question no sooner entered Parker’s mind than he knew the answer. Everything about her suddenly added up—her fear of him, the countless lies on her job application, the way she shrank from his most casual touch. She had recently been involved in an abusive relationship. He saw it in her eyes—a trapped, wary look that made his heart catch. Now she was on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the bastard who’d roughed her up. If he was wrong, he’d eat his hat for supper and his boots for dessert.

This added a totally new wrinkle. He couldn’t very well blame a woman for lying to him about her references if she was trying to escape an abusive bully.

The anger that had made him see red a moment ago eased from Parker’s body. Turning, he rested his hips against the edge of his desk and blocked her escape with his outstretched legs, angling them across the center aisle between the two workstations. He folded his arms loosely over his chest, hoping his relaxed posture might reassure her a little.

“You never attended Pepperdine University or Seaver College,” he said without preamble. “The places of employment you listed don’t even exist.”

She pushed up from the chair. Parker was surprised that she could stand. Her legs were shaking like aspen leaves in a brisk breeze. She went to the file cabinet to collect her purse and then turned toward him, holding the bag to her midriff as if it were a shield. Without a word, she tried to step over his crossed boots. No way was Parker going to let her leave, not until he had some answers. He thrust out a hand to grasp her arm.

“Oh, no, you don’t. I hired you in good faith. I offered you an extremely attractive employment package. The very least you owe me is some sort of explanation.”

He could feel her arm muscles quivering under the press of his fingertips. He knew she was terrified. Yet still she said nothing.

“Well,” he said softly, “if you’ve got no explanations to offer, let me venture a couple of guesses. I think some asshole beat the ever-lovin’ hell out of you, and not that long ago, judgin’ by that scar on your cheek.” Her body jerked as if he’d slapped her. “My second guess is that your name isn’t really Anna Pritchard. How am I doin’ so far?”

Rainie felt as if she might faint. This couldn’t be happening. She had anticipated that Harrigan might check her references, but she’d never in her wildest dreams thought he might look beyond the lies and come up with a hypothesis so close to the truth. She remembered the time he’d looked into her eyes and given her the uncomfortable feeling that he could read far more than she wanted to reveal. Now she realized that it had been more than just a feeling.

He knew the truth—or a very close facsimile thereof. After all she’d been through to get safely away from Peter, she couldn’t allow her cover to be blown her second day on the job. Other people had stuck their necks out on her behalf, not only Margaret and Janet, but also Stan, a computer guru they’d chummed around with in college. Though Stan had been paid to get Rainie a fake birth certificate and passport, he hadn’t provided his services solely for the money. The penalties for breaching government firewalls and altering records were stiff. Stan could have robbed a bank for a much larger take and probably received much the same punishment if he were caught. No, he had helped Rainie out of friendship, a princely gesture that had momentarily restored her faith in the opposite sex.

Now, cornered in the office by Parker Harrigan, Rainie had no well of faith left to tap, not when it came to men. There was no question in her mind that he would turn her in, and when he did, she and her friends would be in big trouble. The search for Lorraina Danning had cost a fortune in taxpayers’ money. The authorities would not be happy if they discovered that her disappearance had been staged.

Digging deep for composure, Rainie looked directly into Harrigan’s eyes. “What on earth makes you think I lied about my name?” She asked the question with an incredulous laugh that she hoped was convincing. “I have a birth certificate, passport, and driver’s license to prove who I am.”

“Identification can be faked.”

“Not anymore,” she countered. “All government records are computerized and protected by impenetrable firewalls.”

“Difficult to breach, perhaps, but not impossible.” He smiled slightly. “Nothin’ is impossible for a talented hacker. For a price, fake identification can still be acquired.”

“I—“ She gulped to steady her voice. “Can I just go, please?”

“Somehow that doesn’t strike me as bein’ equitable.” His lips shimmered in the overhead florescent lights as he spoke. “You come into my world, you make me feel like an idiot for trustin’ you, and now you wanna waltz away without one word of explanation?”

That was precisely what she wanted. Why couldn’t he just let it go at that?

Only the grip of his fingers on her arm told her that he had no such intention. He wasn’t hurting her—yet. But she could feel the suppressed strength that he might unleash on her at any moment.

“What do you want from me?” she asked shakily.

“The truth.”

That was the one thing Rainie couldn’t give him. Too many people, including herself, would be hurt.

* * *

The tremors Parker felt coursing through Anna Pritchard’s body made him feel ashamed of himself. He’d wrestled with foals bigger than she was. A physical confrontation between them could have only one possible conclusion. But did that give him the right to push her around? He had a very bad feeling that she’d already been intimidated enough times in her young life.

When she tried to jerk free of his grasp again, he didn’t have the heart to hold on. What kind of a man bullied someone her size? Even worse, what kind of a man had struck her with enough force to lay open her cheek? She looked so scared that he doubted she could spit if he yelled, “Fire.”

After releasing her, Parker stepped over to the closed door and leaned his shoulder against the wood, still effectively barring her escape, only now without touching her. He needed to reassure her somehow. Problem was he had no idea where to start.

“You know, Anna, I’m kind of peculiar in some ways.”

Her eyes went wide. He went back over what he’d said and wished he could recall the statement. The word “peculiar” was clearly equivalent to “crazy” in her mind.

“What I mean is, I don’t always march to the same drumbeat as everyone else,” he amended.

That didn’t work, either.

“All right, scratch all that.” Damn it. Just like his brothers, Clint and Zach, he’d inherited his father’s amazing talent for always saying the wrong thing. “What I’m tryin’ to say is . . .” What the hell was he trying to say? He’d never been good at beating around the bush. He was a direct man who shot from the hip. Whenever he tried to soften his delivery, he screwed it up. “Let me just say it without frills. Okay? If you lied because you’re tryin’ to escape an abusive relationship, I won’t hold it against you. A lot of employers might, but I won’t.”

Taking measure of his audience, Parker decided that she still looked like a rabbit searching for a bolt hole.

“In fact,” he went on, “I admire your courage if that’s the case. A lot of women don’t have the guts to leave. It’s a pretty scary proposition to turn your back on everything familiar. No friends, no job, no home. That takes a lot of backbone.”

His mouth had gone as dry as stale bread. His little sister, Sam, had gotten the hell beaten out of her a few times, and she’d been afraid to tell Parker for fear he’d end up in jail for killing her first husband. Major possibility. But how could he impart his feelings about abusive men to this frightened girl?

Yes, in many ways she was only a girl, twenty-five and full-grown, but still far from being worldly. He could see the shattered innocence and pain of betrayal in her eyes. For a few hours, he’d talked himself into thinking her innocence was all an act, but no man with good sense could look at her and hold to that judgment. She was everything he’d perceived her to be during the job interview—young, uncertain, and more than a little skittish. She put him in mind of a pretty little filly he’d once purchased at auction that had been mistreated so badly it had taken her weeks to accept his touch. Befriending her had required more patience than Parker had known he had.

“I have no respect for men who beat women,” he continued. “Or animals, for that matter. My father raised me better. If you’re runnin’ from someone like that, I don’t care what your real name is. I don’t care where you’re from. I don’t care if you really have an undergraduate degree in accountin’. I’ll keep you on the payroll, trustin’ in your ability to do the job. All I’ll ask of you is an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

She still stood there as if her boots had been glued to the floor.

Parker had only one more bullet to fire. “I won’t rat you out, if that’s your worry. I swear it.”

Still trembling from head to toe, she struggled to speak, her slender throat working as if she were trying to swallow a golf ball. “I’m sorry about the falsehoods on my application. I don’t usually lie. Maybe that’s why I’m not very good at it. But now I just need to go.”

Parker didn’t have it in him to block her way any longer. Intimidating women wasn’t high on his list of favorite things to do. As he stepped aside to let her pass, he pitched his voice low and said, “I don’t know where you’ve been in your life, Anna. I don’t know what’s happened to you. But I can guarantee you one thing. You can trust me. The job will be waitin’ for you if you change your mind. The next employer who checks out your references may not be as understandin’. You need to think about that.”

She flashed him a look that nearly broke his heart, one filled with a hopeless yearning to trust that had been battered so badly it had lost its power to sway her. “Thanks.”

It was all she said before she grabbed the doorknob, gave it a frantic twist, and rushed from the office. Parker didn’t go after her. He had already frightened her enough.

Silence filled the room after she left. He recalled his entrance a few minutes earlier. He’d been mad enough to chew nails and spit out screws. Was it any wonder she’d been afraid he meant to strike her when he reached for the paperweight? Damn it. He wished he could give himself a swift kick in the ass.

She’d sought sanctuary here, and he’d driven her away with his penchant for the truth and only the truth. Sometimes people had no choice but to lie.

Parker stepped over to the window to watch her race to her rusted-out excuse for an automobile. When he glanced beneath the undercarriage, he saw a dark splotch, undeniable evidence that the Mazda was leaking oil. Shit. He felt like such a jerk. The three hundred bucks that he had advanced her yesterday would be gone in a blink if that car broke down.

Almost as if he’d spoken the thought out loud, she stopped before getting into the vehicle. After hesitating for a moment, she set her purse on the hood, fished deep, and came up with her wallet. No, damn it, no. But sure as rain was wet, she retraced her steps to the personnel door.

When Parker lost sight of her again, he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. He hadn’t felt this ashamed of himself in years. When she knocked lightly, he swallowed hard, turned, and said, “Come in.”

The door eased open. She stood on the threshold, looking like an impoverished waif in the grab-bag clothing and battered riding boots. She held a wad of money in one fist, her wallet in the other. “I forgot,” she pushed out. “I can’t accept an advance on wages that I won’t ever earn.”

Parker’s eyes burned as he stared at her. “Just keep it,” he whispered.

“No.” She stepped over to his desk. “I may be a liar, Mr. Harrigan, but I’m not a thief.”

After dropping the money on the blotter, she left again. Parker stared at the closed door, unable to move. He felt awful. He went to the window to watch her leave. He expected her to speed away. Instead, she folded her slender arms over the steering wheel and rested her head on the backs of her hands.

When several minutes passed and she still hadn’t left, Parker got a lump in his throat that he couldn’t swallow away. No question about it, he needed a serious attitude adjustment. Who’d elected him to be her judge and jury? He’d had it easy all his life—a great father, a tight knit family, and unfailing support. The only time he’d ever gotten the snot beat out of him had been at a honky-tonk when he’d had too much to drink and been pushed into a fight. He had no idea how it felt to be helpless and afraid, day in and day out, or how frightening it was to be on the run. He’d also never needed a job so desperately that he would have lied to get one.

* * *

Rainie couldn’t drive. She was shaking too badly. Instead of keying the ignition to make her getaway, she just sat there, trembling and battling tears. She was inexpressibly grateful that Parker Harrigan had let her go, but she couldn’t erase one of his warnings from her mind. Her next employer might not be as understanding when her references didn’t check out. At least Parker had promised not to expose her. The thing was, could she trust him?

Rainie found it difficult, if not impossible, to trust another man. When she remembered how easily Peter had duped her, she felt like an imbecile. Oh, how excited she’d been when he first called, asking if she would accept an internship at Barrestol International. Barrestol, a Seattle based company, had been at the top of Rainie’s dream list of fabulous places to work when she finally got her degree. During her last quarter of studies before graduation, she had interviewed with one of the company’s scouts, but despite her high GPA, she hadn’t expected a job offer. Having someone from Barrestol offer her an internship had seemed too good to be true. Hello. When things seemed too good to be true, they usually were.

Parker Harrigan fell into that category. I won’t rat you out. What was in it for him? That was the question. Recalling the speculative look in his eyes when he’d studied her the day before yesterday, Rainie had to wonder if his motives were honorable. As much as she needed a job, she wouldn’t participate in any workplace hanky-panky to keep it.

Rainie’s heart leaped when the passenger door of the Mazda suddenly opened and Parker swung onto the seat beside her. To her frightened eyes, he looked a yard wide at the shoulders. In the faded Wranglers and wash-worn work shirt, he also looked lean and muscular in a way that city-dwelling males usually didn’t. He flashed one of those charming grins that never failed to jangle her nerves.

“Hi,” was all he said.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Nothin’.” He winked at her and extended a hand. A small silver flask rested on his broad palm. “I’ve been watchin’ you through the window, and I decided you might need a drink to settle your nerves.”

“No, thanks.”

“Whiskey,” he informed her, “is a great sedative.”

“I still have to drive home. The last thing I need is a DUI.”

“A couple of belts won’t raise your blood alcohol level enough to get you in any trouble.” He pushed the flask at her again. “Loosen up a little, Anna. You’re runnin’ on raw nerves. If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that I can never make smart decisions when I’m upset.”

“I’ve already made my decision.”

“To leave, you mean?” He uncapped the flask and took a gulp of the whiskey. As he swallowed, he rubbed the mouth of the container clean with the sleeve of his shirt. “That is an option, I reckon, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s the smartest choice you can make.”

He offered the flask again, and this time Rainie accepted it. She took only a small sip of the liquor, but he was right. It warmed the cold places within her and made her feel calmer. She followed the first sip with a second and then returned the flask to him.

As the whiskey did its work, he began talking softly. “Judgin’ by the condition of your car, I think you’re in sore need of a regular paycheck.” He angled a questioning look at her. “That isn’t to say you can’t find another job, but in my experience, it’s always better to bank on a sure thing. I’m a sure thing.”

“Are you?” The instant she posed the question, Rainie wondered if the liquor had loosened her tongue. “I know nothing about you, Mr. Harrigan.”

“True, so let me tell you a few things about myself. First off, like I said earlier, if you’re on the run from some bastard with a penchant for punchin’ women, I’ll support you in any way I can. I gave you my word that I won’t rat you out, and my word is my honor.” His mouth twisted into a self-deprecating smile. “I know it’s a corny old sayin’, and most people don’t really mean it. But I’m a Harrigan.”

“A Harrigan,” she echoed. “Does that make you special somehow?”

“Not special, exactly. It’s just that my dad is an old-fashioned man, and he’s drilled the importance of honesty into me all my life. In his opinion, a man who doesn’t stand behind his word isn’t worth the powder it’d take to blow him to hell. That’s one reason I kind of lost it for a few minutes when I discovered you’d lied on your application. In my family, lyin’ isn’t okay.”

“So why are you so willing to forgive me for it?”

His gaze held hers for a long moment. “Because I think you’re in a world of trouble and need a friend,” he said quietly. “As much stock as I put in honesty and integrity, Anna, I’m not so sanctimonious that I blame someone for doin’ what they must to survive. Sometimes that means lyin’ on a job application so you can put food on the table.”

“And that’s it? You just want to help me out, no strings attached?”

His gaze went dark with emotions she couldn’t name. He stared at her for so long that her skin started to prickle. “You’ve been to hell and back. Haven’t you?”

Hell didn’t describe where she’d been, but she resisted the urge to tell him that.

“You can count on me,” he assured her. “Take all the time you need to think it over. Just know that the job is still yours if you want it. All I’ll ask is that you give me a name to call you that you’ll actually answer to.”

Rainie couldn’t remember not responding to the name Anna, but she supposed it was possible. It wasn’t her real name, after all.

She didn’t know what possessed her, but she heard herself say, “In my other life, my name was Rainie.”

“Rainie.” He said it slowly. Then he nodded. “It suits you. You don’t look like an Anna.”

He opened the car door and got out of the vehicle. Before walking away, he leaned down to say, “I hope you’ll show up for work in the mornin’. Good bookkeepers don’t grow on trees, and I’m in sore need of one.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

When Parker realized he was falling in love with Rainie, whom he suspected might be married, did you agree with his decision that her marriage to her abuser was not sacred? Or did you feel that Parker should have backed off and honored her union with the man who had almost destroyed her?

When Rainie found it difficult to see her distorted reflection in the side of the chrome toaster and you finally discovered why, did you understand her emotional reaction? Or did you feel that she should have just toughened up and discounted her recurring nightmare about seeing distorted images of strangers instead of herself in a House of Mirrors?

In the epilogue, when you saw Rainie with her long-lost grandfather and finally learned why Rainie's father had severed ties with her grandparents, did you feel that her father had been right to cut off all contact with his parents, who disapproved of and wouldn't accept his wife? Or did you feel that they were justified in disapproving of her and not accepting her? And, lastly, did you agree with Rainie's decision to give them another chance-a chance that they had refused to give her mother?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

STAR BRIGHT is about a woman's spirit, how she can be demoralized and arise from the ashes like a phoenix. Often people categorize abused women as head cases who choose abusive men. It's true that some feel drawn to men like that, but the majority are targeted by sweet-talkers. The victims feel that life is train wreck they never saw coming. They become trapped because our judicial system offers them little protection, and law enforcement officers often shrug and walk away, believing the lies of the husband and that important men can't be monsters. Wrong. Their victims may be in horrible danger if they try to leave. These women are browbeaten and come to believe they are ugly and stupid. It takes so much courage for them to escape, and it takes even more courage to reclaim their sense of self. I wanted this book to be a tribute to women-to our strength, our resilience, and our ability to fight back. I want readers to come away with a better understanding of their sisters who have been victimized and also with the knowledge that they, too, have it within them to rise from the ashes. We are incredibly strong!

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Star Bright"by Angelia M. (see profile) 07/20/09

  "Interesting."by Brenda C. (see profile) 07/20/09

This book from page one, you know how it will end. That is understood. I really liked the story though. It was a tough time for Rainie and I felt like she could have been a real person. It was an easy,... (read more)

  "Star Bright"by Traci F. (see profile) 07/20/09

Even though the ending is fairly predictable, I enjoyed the book. I'm glad that Rainie finally got to stand up for herself.

  "Star Bright"by Leslie M. (see profile) 07/19/09

  "Star Bright"by Amanda W. (see profile) 06/22/09

When I started reading this book, I described it to other members of my book club as Nora Roberts meets Sleeping with the Enemy (I loved that the author mentions the movie!!), but I was wrong. I think... (read more)

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