Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
Chaz heard the anger and hurt in her voice and also recognized underlying guilt. God knows, he’d blamed himself enough.
He was Ruth’s big brother. He should have been able to keep her safe.
If only he’d been closer to his sister, known what was going on in her head. Some folks thought she and Peyton had run off together, maybe with boys they’d met somewhere.
But others believed they’d been kidnapped.
Tawny-Lynn turned to her SUV, raised the trunk door and reached for her suitcase. He automatically reached for it himself, and their hands touched. A frisson of something sparked between them, taking him off guard.
She must have felt it, too, because her eyes widened in alarm. “I can handle it, Chaz.”
“Tawny-Lynn,” he said, his voice gruff.
Her shoulders tensed. “What?”
What could he say? “I’m sorry for the way things went down back then.”
Anguish flickered on her face before she masked it. “Everyone was hurting, Chaz. Grieving. In shock.”
The fact that she was making excuses for the way people treated her proved she was compassionate. Still, she’d been wronged, and obviously hadn’t overcome that pain.
“Did you ever remember anything else?” he asked, then immediately regretted pushing her when she dropped the suitcase and grabbed the handle.
“No. If I did, don’t you think I would have told someone?”
That was the question that plagued him. Some speculated that she’d helped Ruth and Peyton run away, while others believed she’d seen the kidnapper and kept quiet out of fear.
Of course, Dr. Riggins said she had amnesia caused from the accident.
So if she had seen the kidnapper, the memory was locked in her head.
* * *
file with the photos from the bus crash from his locked desk and flipped through the pictures from the newspaper. The bus driver, fifty-nine-year-old Trevor Jergins, had died instantly when he’d crashed through the front window as the bus had careened over the ridge.
The pictures of the team were there, too. Seventeen-year-old Joan Marx, fifteen-year-old Cassie Truman and sixteen-year-old Aubrey Pullman. All players on the high school softball team.
All girls who died in that crash.
Then there was Ruth and Peyton...
She’d had a concussion and hadn’t remembered anything about the accident seven years ago. Had she remembered something since?
Now that she was back in town, would she expose him for what he’d done?
No...he couldn’t let that happen. If she started to cause trouble, he’d have to get rid of her.
He’d made it this long without anyone knowing. He didn’t intend to go to jail now.
Tawny-Lynn bounced her suitcase up the rickety porch steps, her pulse clamoring. Good heavens. She’d had a crush on Chaz Camden when she was sixteen, but she thought she’d buried those feelings long ago.
He was even more good-looking now. Those teenage muscles had developed into a powerful masculine body that had thrown her completely off guard.
He looked good in a uniform, too.
Don’t go there. You have to clean this wreck of a place up and get the hell out of town.
The door screeched when she jammed the metal key in the lock and pushed it open. Dust motes rose and swirled in the hazy light streaming in through the windows, which looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a decade.
But the clutter inside was even worse. Newspapers, magazines, mail and bills overflowed the scarred oak coffee table and kitchen table. Her father had always been messy and had liked to collect junk, even to the point of buying grab bags at the salvage store, but his habit had turned into hoarding. Every conceivable space on the counter was loaded down with canned goods, boxes of assorted junk, beer cans, liquor bottles and, of all things, oversize spice containers.
Odd for a man who never cooked.
Junk boxes of nuts and bolts and screws were piled in one corner, dirty clothes had been dumped on the faded-plaid sofa, several pairs of tattered shoes were strewn about and discarded take-out containers lay haphazardly around the kitchen and den.
The sound of mice skittering somewhere in the kitchen sent a shudder through her. If the main area looked like this, she dreaded seeing the other rooms.
The stench of stale beer and liquor mingled with moldy towels and smoke.
Tawny-Lynn heaved a frustrated breath, half tempted to light a match, toss it into the pile and burn the whole place down.
But knowing her luck, she’d end up in prison for arson and the town would throw a party to celebrate her incarceration.
She refused to give them the pleasure.
But she was going to need cleaning supplies. A lot of them. Then she’d handle what repairs she could on her own, but she’d have to hire someone to take care of the major problems.
She left her suitcase in the den while she walked to the master bedroom on the main floor, glanced inside and shook her head. Her father’s room was as messy as the other two rooms. More liquor bottles, papers, clothes, towels that had soured and would need to be thrown away.
Had he lived like this?
He was probably so inebriated that he didn’t care.
Deciding she’d check out the upstairs before she headed into town to pick up supplies, she stepped over a muddy pair of work boots and made it to the stairwell. Cool air drifted through the eaves of the old house as she clenched the bannister. At one time her mother had kept a runner on the wooden steps, but apparently her father had ripped it out so the floors were bare now, scarred and crusted with dirt.
Bracing herself for a blast from the past, she paused at the first bedroom on the right. Peyton’s room. The frilly, once bright pink, ruffled curtains still hung on the windows although they’d faded to a dull shade. But everything else in the room remained untouched. Posters from rock bands, a team banner and photographs of the team and Peyton and Ruth were still thumbtacked on the bulletin board above the white, four-poster bed. The stuffed animals and dolls she’d played with as a child stood like a shrine on the corner bookcase.
Memories of her sister pummeled her, making it difficult to breathe. She could still see the two of them playing dolls on the floor. Peyton braiding her hair in front of the antique mirror, using one of their mother’s fancy pearl combs at the crown to dress up the look.
Peyton slamming the door and shutting her out, when she and Ruth wanted to be alone.
Cleaning this room would be the hardest, but it would have to be done. Although she’d feared the worst had happened to her sister over the years, that she was dead or being held hostage by some crazed maniac rapist, it still seemed wrong to discard her things, almost as if she were erasing Peyton from her life.
Or accepting that she was gone and never coming back.
Dragging herself back to the task at hand, she walked next door to her room. Her breath caught when she looked inside.
Her room had not been preserved, as Peyton’s had.
In fact, someone had tossed the drawers and dresser. And on the mirror, hate words had been written in red.
Blood or lipstick, she wasn’t sure.
But the message was clear just the same.
The girls’ blood is on your head
* * *
the image of Tawny-Lynn from his mind as he made rounds in the small town. He hadn’t paid much attention to her when she’d tagged after his sister years ago. Had thought she had a crush on him and hadn’t wanted to encourage it.
He’d been in love with Sonya Wilkerson and, that last year when Ruth had been a senior, he’d played baseball for the junior college on a scholarship that he’d planned to use to earn a forestry degree.
Then Ruth and Peyton went missing and he’d decided to pursue law enforcement and get the answers his family wanted.
Only so far he’d failed.
Maybe Tawny-Lynn would remember something now that she was back.
His phone beeped as he parked at Donna’s Diner on the corner of Main Street, and he noticed the high school softball coach, Jim Wake, chatting with Mrs. Calvin. He’d kept up with the local games enough to know her daughter played for the team. The woman looked annoyed, but the coach patted her arm, using the charm he’d always used to soothe meddling, pushy parents. Everyone wanted their kid to get more play time, to be the star of the team.
If he remembered correctly, Tawny-Lynn had been damn good. Much better than her sister, although Peyton had been prettier and more of a flirt. She’d danced through dating the football team one at a time, then when spring rolled around, she’d moved on to the baseball players.
But he’d stayed clear. Peyton was his sister’s best friend. Off-limits.
He parked and went inside, his stomach growling. One day he’d learn to cook, but for now Donna supplied great homemade meals at a decent price, and today’s special was her famous meat loaf. She refused to give anyone the recipe or reveal her secret ingredient.
A late-spring storm was brewing, the skies darkening as the day progressed. Wind tossed dust and leaves across the asphalt, the scent of coffee, barbecue and apple pie greeting him as he entered.
The dinner crowd had already arrived, and he waved to Billy Dean and Leroy in the far corner, then noted that the parents of the three girls who’d died in the crash were sitting in a booth together, deep in conversation.
Mayor Theodore Truman, Cassie’s father, seemed to be leading the discussion. The Marx couple and Aubrey Pullman’s mother listened intently. Sadly, Aubrey’s father had killed himself two years after the accident without even leaving a note. Rumor was that he’d grieved himself to death.
He had to walk past them to reach the only empty booth, and Mayor Truman looked up, saw him and gestured for him to stop.
“Hello, Mayor.” He tipped his hat to Mr. and Mrs. Marx and Judy Pullman in greeting.
“Is it true? Tawny-Lynn Boulder is back?” Mayor Truman asked.
Chaz tensed, hating the way the man said her name as if she’d committed some heinous crime. “She’s here to take care of her father’s estate.”
Mr. Marx stood, his anger palpable as he adjusted his suit jacket. “Your father said he talked to you.”
Chaz hated small-town politics. He hated even more that his father thought he ran the town just because he had money. “Yes, he voiced his concerns.”
“What are you going to do about that
” Mayor Truman asked.
Chaz planted both hands on his hips. “Ms. Boulder has every right to be here. You might show a little sympathy toward her. After all, she lost her father and, seven years ago, her sister, too.”
The mayor’s bushy eyebrows rose. He obviously didn’t like to be put in his place. But Chaz was his own man.
He started to leave, but Judy Pullman stood and touched his hand, then leaned toward him, speaking quietly. “Sheriff, does she...remember anything about that day?”
Chaz squeezed her hand, understanding the questions still plaguing her. For God’s sake, they dogged him, too. Like who had caused that freak accident.
Or had it been an accident?
They needed closure, but unfortunately their hopes lay in Tawny-Lynn’s hands. A lot of pressure for her.
“No, ma’am. I know we all want answers, and if she does remember something, trust me, I’ll let everyone know.”
“Is she...here to stay?”
He shook his head, thinking about how lost she looked facing that crumbling farmhouse. There had to be ghosts inside waiting for her.
“She said she’s just going to clean up the ranch and put it on the market.”
Mrs. Pullman stared at him for a long minute, then gave him a pained smile. “I guess I can’t blame her for running.”
Neither could he.
But if others still harbored as much animosity as the mayor and his father, he’d have to keep an eye out for her.
* * *
the laundry list of supplies she needed into her purse and drove toward town. The road was lonely and deserted, the countryside filled with small houses interspersed between flat farmland.
A mile from town she passed the trailer park where Patti Mercer, the pitcher on her old team, used to live. Patti had dodged a bullet because of a stomach bug that day. Unlike her sister, Joy, who’d gotten pregnant at eighteen and still lived in the trailer where she’d grown up, Patti had earned a softball scholarship and had left Camden Crossing. Tawny-Lynn wondered what she was doing now.
The road curved to the right, and she wove around a deserted tractor. The town square hadn’t changed except they’d refurbished the playground in the park, and the storefronts had been redesigned to resemble an old Western town. The tack shop had expanded, a fabric store had been added near the florist, the library now adjoined city hall and the sheriff’s office had been painted and bore a new sign.
She passed the sheriff’s office and the diner, then saw the general store and decided they’d probably have everything she needed. If not, Hank’s Hardware would. But she wasn’t ready to tackle repairs. She had to start by scraping off the layers of dirt and grime.
She pulled into a parking spot, noting that the diner was crowded. A couple who looked familiar, but one she couldn’t quite place, exited the general store as she entered.
She grabbed a cart, then strolled the aisles, filling it with industrial-size cleaner, Pine-Sol, scrub brushes, dish soap, laundry detergent, dusting spray and polish, glass cleaner, then threw in a new broom and mop along with buckets, sponges and a duster with an extended handle so she could reach the corners.
Thankfully she’d checked her father’s supply shed and had been surprised to find buckets and boxes full of tools of every kind. Apparently tools were another aspect of his hoarding. He could have opened his own hardware business from the shed out back.
A couple with a toddler walked by, the baby babbling as he rode on his father’s back. She frowned, her heart tugging a little. She hadn’t thought about having her own family, hadn’t been able to let any man in her life.
But this guy looked familiar. Maybe he’d been in her class?
She continued past them with her head averted. She didn’t intend to be here long enough to renew friendships or start new ones.
The locals probably wouldn’t welcome her anyway.
She bent to choose some oven cleaner, then added it to the cart, but as she stood, she bumped into a body. She twisted to apologize then looked up to see an older woman with thinning gray hair staring at her.
She frowned, trying to place her.
“Are you Tawny-Lynn Boulder?” the woman asked.
Tawny-Lynn swallowed. “Yes.”
“You probably don’t know me but my name is Evelyn Jergins. My husband drove the bus for the softball team. He died that day in the crash.”
Tawny-Lynn’s heart clenched. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “You— They said you might know what made him wreck.”
The urge to run slammed into Tawny-Lynn. “No.... I’m so sorry, but I still don’t remember much about that day.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Trevor was a good man. I miss him every day.”
“I miss my sister, too,” Tawny-Lynn said.
“I heard about your daddy. That’s too bad.”
Tawny-Lynn shrugged, touched by the woman’s sincerity. “I came back to clean up the ranch and sell it.”
“Then you’re not moving back?”
She shook her head. “No, I live in Austin.”
She arched her brows. “Really? Are you married?”
“No.” God, no. She hadn’t been involved with anyone since her freshmen year in college when she’d found her boyfriend cheating on her. He’d blamed her. Said she wouldn’t really let him in. That she was closed off emotionally.
Maybe she was. The nightmares of the past tormented her at night.
She quickly said goodbye, grabbed her cart and headed to the front. A silver-haired woman with tortoiseshell glasses was working the checkout counter and smiled as Tawny-Lynn unloaded the cart.
“Looks like you got a job ahead of you, hon.”
Tawny-Lynn forced a smile, although she dreaded the backbreaking job. “Yes, I do.”
She didn’t offer more information, and thankfully another customer came up behind her and the woman tallied her items quickly. Tawny-Lynn paid with her debit card and headed outside, but as she loaded the items into her trunk, she sensed someone watching her, and anxiety tightened her shoulders.
When she turned, Cassie Truman’s father was standing behind her. Age lines fanned his face, his hair had streaks of gray, but he still carried himself as if he were superior to everyone else.