Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
IN RITA HERRON’S COLD CASE AT CAMDEN CROSSING, THE OLD SAYING IS TRUE: THE SMALLER THE TOWN, THE BIGGER THE SECRETS
People in town believe Tawny-Lynn Boulder is the only reason the Camden Cross case went unsolved. She survived the bus accident that left several dead and two missing, but the severe trauma left her with amnesia. So when she returns to her family’s ranch after seven years, Sherrif Chaz Camden presses her to help locate the girls who were never found—including his own sister. But someone in town is threatening to kill Tawny-Lynn to keep the case closed. Now she must trust that the sexy sheriff she once loved will protect her and show this murderer that in Camden, accidents don’t happen…justice does.
Tawny-Lynn leaned into Chaz, her body trembling. Ever since that awful accident, she’d felt alone.
She’d learned to deal with it and to stand on her own, but for just a moment, she allowed herself the comfort of Chaz’s arms.
Tension slowly seeped from her tightly wound muscles. She felt the warmth of his arms encircling her, the soft rise and fall of his chest against her cheek, the whisper of his breath against her ear.
But the safety felt too wonderful for her to fantasize that it would last.
Finally she raised her gaze to his. His eyes darkened with concern and other emotions that made her want to reach up and touch his cheek.
Kiss his lips.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author Rita Herron wrote her first book when
she was twelve, but didn’t think real people grew up to be writers. Now she
writes so she doesn’t have to get a
former kindergarten teacher and workshop leader, she traded storytelling to kids
for writing romance, and now she writes romantic comedies and romantic suspense.
She lives in Georgia with her own romance hero and three kids. She loves to hear
from readers, so please write her at P.O. Box 921225, Norcross, GA 30092-1225,
or visit her website,
Books by Rita Herron
918—RETURN TO FALCON
957—FORCE OF THE
977—JUSTICE FOR A RANGER
1006—ANYTHING FOR HIS
1029—UP IN FLAMES*
1043—UNDER HIS SKIN*
1081—BENEATH THE BADGE
1174—HIS SECRET CHRISTMAS
1251—BRANDISHING A CROWN
1284—THE MISSING TWIN‡
1329—COWBOY IN THE
1336—COWBOY TO THE MAX**
1463—COLD CASE AT CAMDEN CROSSING
‡Guardian Angel Investigations:
**Bucking Bronc Lodge
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Sheriff Chaz Camden—
He became a lawman to find out who kidnapped his sister and if she’s still alive, but the secret to the cold case lies with Tawny-Lynn Boulder, a woman who claims she doesn’t remember what happened the day his sister and hers went missing.
She’s been tormented for years over her sister and Ruth Camden’s disappearance, but someone doesn’t want her to remember what happened that day.…
She went missing after a terrible bus crash seven years ago. Is she dead or alive?
Tawny-Lynn’s sister also disappeared. Did someone kidnap her or did she run away?
He and his wife want justice for their daughter, and crucified Tawny-Lynn after the accident by accusing her of covering for a killer.
J J McMullen—
When Peyton dumped him for another man, was he mad enough to kill her to get revenge?
Coach Jim Wake—
He was devastated when half of his softball team died in the bus crash—did he know who Peyton was seeing?
This mentally challenged man is obsessed with taking pictures of the girls on the softball team. Did he do something to Ruth and Peyton?
A handyman who did odd jobs in Camden Crossing and Sunset Mesa, a neighboring town where two teens have also gone missing. Is he responsible for the girls’ disappearance?
To Dana for her support and help
Sixteen-year-old Tawny-Lynn Boulder gripped the edge of the seat as something slammed into the back of the bus and sent it careening to the right, skimming the guardrail.
Tires squealed, the driver lost control and sparks spewed from the sides as they swerved back and forth. Screams from the other girls on the softball team echoed around her. Glass shattered.
She glanced sideways as she struggled to keep from pitching into the aisle. The ravine loomed only a few feet away.
Her body bounced against the seat as the bus rolled. Her sister, Peyton, cried out as her head hit the roof of the bus. Someone’s shoe sailed over the seat. A gym bag clumped down the aisle.
Peyton’s best friend, Ruth, clawed at her with bloody hands.
Then the bus was sliding, skidding, skating toward the edge of the ravine. Metal screeched and gears ground as they broke through the railing. For a terrifying second, the bus was suspended, teetering on the edge of the cliff.
More screams and blood flying. Then the vehicle crashed over the edge of the embankment, plunging downward into the ravine below.
“Peyton!” Tawny-Lynn cried.
The force threw Peyton over the seat. More glass rained inside as the bus slammed into a boulder.
Her head hit something, her shoulder ramming into the opposite side of the bus. For a moment, she lost consciousness.
Seconds or maybe minutes later, she stirred, her body aching, her leg twisted beneath a gnarled metal seat edge. She searched for Peyton, terrified she was dead.
They’d had a fight earlier. Stupid sister stuff.
She wanted to make up.
Suddenly smoke began to fill the bus. She struggled to free her leg, but she was trapped.
Someone was crying in the back. But the other screams had subsided.
She managed to raise herself and look into the aisle.
God, no... One of the girls wasn’t moving.
And Peyton and Ruth, where were they?
The bus rocked back and forth as if hanging on to a boulder. The smoke grew thicker. Somewhere through the gray haze, she saw flames shooting up toward the night sky.
She coughed and choked, then everything went dark.
Seven years later
“Your daddy is dead.”
Tawny-Lynn gripped the phone with sweaty palms, then sank onto the bench in her garden. The roses that she’d groomed and loved so much suddenly smelled sickly sweet.
“Did you hear me, Tawny-Lynn?”
She nodded numbly, fighting the bitter memories assaulting her, then realized her father’s lawyer Bentley Bannister couldn’t see her, so she muttered a quiet yes.
But the memories crashed back. The bus accident. The fire. The screams. Then half the team was dead.
Somehow she’d survived, although she had no idea how. She’d lost time when she’d blacked out. Couldn’t remember what had happened after the fire broke out.
But when she’d woken up, her sister and her friend Ruth were gone.
She’d been terrified they were dead. But the police had never found their bodies.
They had escaped somehow. Although half of Camden Crossing thought they’d fallen to foul play, that the accident hadn’t been an accident. That a predator had caused the crash, then abducted Peyton and Ruth.
Just like a predator had taken two girls a year before that from a neighboring town.
Bannister cleared his throat, his voice gruff. “He was sick for a while, but I guess you knew that already.”
No, she didn’t. But then again, she wasn’t surprised. His drinking and the two-pack-a-day cigarette habit had to have caught up with him at some point.
“Anyway, I suppose you’ll want to be here to oversee the memorial service.”
“No, go ahead with that,” Tawny-Lynn said. Her father wouldn’t have wanted her to come.
Wouldn’t have wanted her near him.
Like everyone else in town, he’d blamed her. If she’d remembered more, seen what had happened, they might have been able to find Peyton and Ruth.
“Are you sure? He was your father, Tawny-Lynn.”
“My father hated me after Peyton went missing,” Tawny-Lynn said bluntly.
“Sugar, he was upset—”
“Don’t defend him,” she said. “I left Camden Crossing and him behind years ago.” Although the crash and screams had followed her, still haunted her in her dreams.
A tense heartbeat passed. “All right. But the ranch... Well, White Forks is yours now.”
The ranch. God... She bowed her head and inhaled deep breaths. The familiar panic attack was threatening. She had to ward it off.
“You will come back and take care of the ranch, won’t you?”
Take care of it as in
there? No way.
She massaged her temple, a migraine threatening. Just the thought of returning to the town that hated her made her feel ill.
“Just hang a for-sale sign in the yard.”
His breath wheezed out, reminding her that he was a heavy smoker, too. “About the ranch. Your father let it go the last few years. I don’t think you’ll get anything for it unless you do some upkeep.”
Tawny-Lynn glanced around her small, cozy apartment. It was nestled in Austin, a city big enough to support businesses. A city where no one knew her and where she could get lost in the crowd.
Where no one hated her for the past.
The last thing she wanted to do was have to revisit the house where her life had fallen apart.
But her conversation with her accountant about her new landscape business echoed in her head, and she realized that selling the property could provide the money she needed to make her business a success.
She had to go back and clean up the ranch, then sell it.
Then she’d finally be done with Camden Crossing and the people in it for good.
* * *
glanced at the missing-persons report that had just come in over the fax. Another young girl, barely eighteen.
Vanished from a town in New Mexico in the middle of the night. A runaway or a kidnapping?
He studied the picture, his gut knotting. She was a brunette like his sister, Ruth, had been. Same innocent smile. Her life ahead of her.
And according to her parents, a happy well-adjusted teenager who planned to attend college. A girl who never came home after her curfew.
They thought someone had kidnapped her just as he’d suspected someone had abducted Ruth and Peyton after that horrendous bus crash.
Not that New Mexico was close enough to Camden Crossing, Texas, that he thought it was the same sicko.
But close enough to remind him of the tragedy that had torn his family apart.
The door to the sheriff’s office burst open, and he frowned as his father walked in. Gerome Camden, a banker and astute businessman, owned half the town and had raised him with an iron fist. The two of them had tangled when he was growing up, but Ruth had been his father’s pet, and it had nearly killed him when she’d disappeared.
“We need to talk,” his dad said without preamble.
Chaz shoved the flier about the missing girl beneath a stack of folders, knowing it would trigger one of his father’s tirades. Although judging from the scowl on his aging face, he was already upset about something.
Chaz leaned back in his chair. “What is it, Dad?”
“Tawny-Lynn Boulder is back in town.”
Chaz stifled a reaction. “Really? I heard she didn’t want a memorial service for her father.”
The gray streaks in his father’s hair glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window. “Who could blame her? Eugene Boulder was a common drunk.”
“Guess that’s how he dealt with Peyton going missing.”
Unlike his father who’d just turned plain mean. Although he’d heard Boulder
been a mean drunk.
“Don’t make excuses for that bastard. If Tawny-Lynn hadn’t faked that amnesia, we might have found Ruth a long time ago.”
Chaz started to point out for the hundredth time that the doctors said the amnesia was real, but his father didn’t give him time.
“Bannister handled the will. The ranch is hers.”
Chaz sighed and tapped his foot under the desk. “That’s no surprise. Tawny-Lynn was his only living relative. It makes sense he’d leave her White Forks.”
His father’s cheeks reddened as he leaned forward on the desk, his anger gaining steam. “You need to make sure she doesn’t stay. This town barely survived that girl years ago. We don’t need her here as a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened in Camden Crossing.”
Chaz had heard enough. He stood slowly, determined to control the anger building inside him. Just because his father was a big shot in Camden Crossing, he refused to let him push him around.
“Dad, I’m the sheriff, not your personal peon.” His father opened his mouth, his hands balling into fists, but Chaz motioned him to hear him out. “My job is to protect the citizens of this town.”
“That’s what I’m saying—”
“No, it’s not. You all ran roughshod over a sixteen-year-old girl who was traumatized and confused. And now you want me to make her leave town?” He slammed his own fist on the desk. “For God’s sake, Tawny-Lynn lost her sister that day. She was suffering, too.”
She’d been injured, although someone had pulled her free from the fire just before the bus had exploded, taking the driver and three other classmates’ lives. The other teammates would have probably died, too, if they’d ridden the bus.
At least they’d speculated that someone had rescued Tawny-Lynn. But no one knew who’d saved her.
And no one else had survived. So how had she escaped?
“She knew more than she was telling,” his father bellowed. “And no one wants her here now.”
An image of a skinny, teenage girl with wheat-colored hair and enormous green eyes taunted him. Tawny-Lynn had lost her mother when she was three, had adored her sister, Peyton, and suffered her father’s abuse.
“You don’t know that she even wants to stay. She probably has a life somewhere else. But if she does decide to live at White Forks, that’s her right.”
“She doesn’t give a flying fig about that property or this town. Else she wouldn’t have run the way she did.”
“She went to college, Dad. Besides, you could hardly blame her for leaving,” Chaz said. “No one here seemed to care about her.”
“You listen to me, Chaz,” his father said as if Chaz were still twelve years old. “I’m not just speaking for myself. I’ve discussed this with the town council.”
Two of the members who’d also lost girls that day served on the council now.
“That ranch is run-down,” his father continued. “Just pay her a visit and tell her to sell it. Hell, I’ll buy the damn property from her just to force her out.”
Chaz couldn’t believe that his father was so bitter. That bitterness had festered inside and turned him into a different man.
And not in a good way.
“You want me to go see her and write her a check myself?”
Chaz gritted his teeth. “No, I’ll talk to her. But—” He gave his father a stern look. “I’m not going to run her off. I’ll just ask her what her plans are. For all we know, she’s here to hang a for-sale sign and you’re in an uproar for nothing.”
His father wiped a bead of perspiration from his neck. “Let me know.” He strode to the door, but paused with one hand on the doorknob. “And remember what I said. If you don’t get rid of her, I will.”
Chaz narrowed his eyes. “That sounds like a threat, Dad.”
His father shrugged. “Just thinking about the town.”
He couldn’t believe his father had held on to his anger for so long. “Well, don’t. Leave her alone and let me do my job.”
In fact, he would pay Tawny-Lynn a visit. Not to harass her, but to find out if she’d remembered anything else about the day of the crash.
Something that might help him find out what happened to their sisters.
* * *
as she climbed from her SUV and surveyed White Forks. The ranch consisted of fifty acres, just a small parcel of the original two hundred acres that had been used to breed livestock.
But her father had sold it off to make ends meet long ago, and now the barns and stables were broken down and rotting. The chicken coop had been ripped apart in a storm. The roof needed new shingles, and the grass had withered and died—only tiny patches of green poking through the dry ground.
Spring was fading into summer, the weeds choking the yard and climbing near the front porch. The big white farmhouse that she’d loved as a little girl needed painting, the porch was sagging and the shutters hung askew as if a storm had tried to rip them from the frame of the house.
As though the life had been ripped from it the day Peyton had gone missing.
Maybe before—when her mother had died. Although she hardly remembered her. She was three, Peyton five.
Their father’s depression and drinking had started then and had grown worse over the years.
Somewhere she heard a dog barking, and figured it had to be a stray
A breeze stirred the leaves on the trees, echoing with voices from the past, and sending the tire swing swaying. Images of her and Peyton playing in the swing, laughing and squealing, flashed back. Snippets of other memories followed like a movie trailer—the two of them chasing the mutt they’d called Bitsy. Picking wildflowers and using them for bows in their hair.
Gathering fresh eggs from Barb and Jean, the two chickens they’d named after their favorite elementary school teachers.
Then her teenage years where she and Peyton had grown apart. Peyton and Ruth Camden had been the pretty girls, into boys, when she’d been a knobby-kneed, awkward shy tomboy.
She’d felt left out.
Then the bus crashed, and Peyton and Ruth were both gone. And her father and the entire town blamed her.
Willing away the anguish and guilt clawing at her, Tawny-Lynn started toward the house. But an engine rumbled from the dirt drive leading into the ranch, and she whipped her head around, alarmed as the sheriff’s car rolled in and came to a stop.
Had the town already heard she was back and sent the sheriff to run her off?
They were pulling out all the punches before she even set foot in the house.
The sheriff cut the engine, then opened the door and a long, big body unfolded itself from the driver’s side. Thick dark hair capped a tanned, chiseled face. Broad shoulders stretched tight in the man’s uniform, and he removed sunglasses to reveal dark, piercing eyes beneath the brim of his Stetson.
Eyes that skated over her with a deep frown.
Her heart stuttered when she realized who the man was.
Ruth’s brother and the boy she’d had a crush on seven years ago. The boy whose family had despised her and blamed her for their loss.
The boy who’d visited her in the hospital and tried to push her to remember like everyone else.
* * *
to White Forks in years and was shocked at its dilapidated condition.
He was even more stunned at how much Tawny-Lynn had changed.
The wheat-colored hair was still the same, although longer and wavier than he remembered. And those grass-green eyes were just as vivid and haunted.
But the skinny teenager had developed some womanly curves that would make a man’s mouth water.
“Hello, Tawny-Lynn.” Damn, his voice sounded hoarse. Rough with desire. Something he hadn’t felt in way too long.
And something he’d never felt for this girl...er...woman.
She shaded her eyes with her hand. “You’re sheriff now?”
He gave a clipped nod. He hadn’t planned on law enforcement work, but his sister’s disappearance had triggered his interest. He’d wanted to find her, and it seemed the best way.
“So the town sent you to run me off?”
She had no idea how close to the truth she was.
“I just heard you were here. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Don’t pretend that your family and mine were friends, Chaz. I know how the town and the Camdens feel about me.” She gestured to his car. “So you can go back and report that I’m here only to clean up this place so I can put it on the market. I don’t intend to stick around.”