Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
“Mr. Truman,” she said, remembering the way he’d banned her from his daughter’s funeral.
“I’m the mayor now.”
So he and Chaz’s father must be buddy-buddy, both in control of the town.
She reached to close the trunk of her SUV. “Excuse me, I need to leave.”
you leaving?” he said.
Anger shot through her at his tone. The Camdens and the parents of the girls who’d died blamed her for not remembering details of that day, but she couldn’t help it.
It was like a black hole had swallowed her memory of that day. She wanted the memories back, wanted to know how she’d escaped the bus with a broken leg and where Ruth and Peyton were.
But no amount of pushing or counseling had helped. She’d even tried hypnosis, but that had failed as well.
“As soon as I put the ranch up for sale,” she said, a trace of bitterness in her tone.
“You still aren’t going to tell us what happened back then?”
Pain, sharp and raw, splintered her. “Believe me,
Truman, if I ever remember, the town will know.”
Battling tears, she brushed past him, jumped in the SUV and backed away.
Her hands were shaking, her heart racing. Damn him. Damn her.
She wanted to remember and put the story to rest.
She slapped the steering wheel and brushed away tears. She had lost her sister that day, too.
Night had set in, the Friday-night diner crowd filing outside to their cars and heading home. She wondered if they still played bingo at the church and had monthly dances at the rec.
Not that she would be attending any. She meant what she’d said. She’d clean up White Forks and get the hell out before the town destroyed her again.
Her SUV hit a pothole, and she braked, then slowed as she drove the country road. Seconds later, lights appeared behind her, and she checked her rearview mirror, anxious as the car sped up and rode her bumper.
Irritated, she braked again, hoping the driver would pass her, but the jerk slowed slightly, then continued to ride her as she left town. The curve caught her off guard, and she skimmed the edge of the road, then the car passed, forcing her toward the ditch.
Sweat beaded on her hands as she clenched the steering wheel and tried to maintain control, but her tires hit another pothole, and the Jeep skidded off the road.
Her body slammed against the steering wheel as the SUV pitched forward, the front bumper ramming into the ditch.
The impact jerked her neck, her head hit the back of the seat and the world went dark.
Chaz paid his bill at the diner, then checked in with his deputy, Ned Lemone, a young, restless guy who’d taken the job but made it clear he wanted to move to a big city and make detective. Not enough action around Camden Crossing.
At least he didn’t mind the night shift.
“Anything I need to know about?” Chaz asked.
Deputy Lemone shook his head. “A domestic out at the Cooter farm.”
“Wally and Inez at it again?”
His deputy nodded. “She threw a cast-iron skillet at him. Broke his big toe.”
Chaz shook his head. The couple fought like cats and dogs, but refused to separate. He’d been out there a half dozen times himself.
Chaz walked to the door. “Call me if anything comes up.”
Deputy Lemone nodded, and Chaz strode outside, went to his car and drove toward his cabin a couple of miles outside town on a creek, only three miles from White Forks.
And on the opposite side of town from his folks. Maybe
should relocate even farther away from them.
But he’d stayed, hoping being close might lead him to a clue about Ruth’s disappearance.
He wound around the curve on the deserted road, fighting thoughts of Tawny-Lynn when he noticed a battered, blue SUV had nose-dived into the ditch.
He swerved to the side of the road, threw the cruiser into Park and jogged over to her Jeep. His boots skidded on gravel as he rushed down the incline.
He glanced inside the driver’s side and saw Tawny-Lynn raise her head and look up at him. Blood dotted her forehead, and she seemed dazed and confused.
He pulled the door open. “Tawny-Lynn, are you all right?”
She nodded, then touched her forehead. He did a quick assessment. Her seat belt must have kept her from serious harm, but the Jeep was so old it didn’t have air bags.
“What happened?” Chaz asked as he lifted her chin to examine her for other injuries. The cut was small, and he didn’t think it needed stitches, but she could have a concussion.
“I... A car came up behind me,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I slowed to let him go past but he kept riding my bumper. And when he passed me, he was so close I ran off the road.”
“Did the driver stop?”
She shook her head. “No, he raced on by. He seemed like he was in real hurry.”
“Did you see who was driving?”
“But you said ‘he.’ You’re sure it was a man?”
She dropped her hands to her lap. “No. The car had tinted windows.”
“What kind of car was it?”
Tawny-Lynn shrugged. “I don’t know, Chaz. It was dark and the lights nearly blinded me.” She reached for her keys. “Do you think you can help me get out of here?”
“Sure. But I’m going to call a medic to check you out. You might have a concussion.”
“I’m fine,” Tawny-Lynn said. “I just want to go back to the ranch.”
He grabbed the keys from her. “You’re not driving until you’re examined by a professional.”
She glared at him. “Chaz, please—”
“It would be irresponsible of me to let you drive when you might have a head injury.” He grabbed his phone from his belt and made the call.
“Racine, there was an accident on White Forks Road. Send the medics out here now.” A pause. “Yeah, thanks.” He disconnected then punched the number for Henry’s Auto Repair. “Henry, can you send a tow truck out to White Forks Road? A car accident, Jeep in a ditch that needs pulling out.”
“Sure. I’m on my way,” Henry said.
Chaz disconnected, his chest tightening as he glanced down at Tawny-Lynn. Her face looked pale in the moonlight, and she was rubbing her chest as if she might have cracked a rib.
He didn’t like the fact that she’d had an accident the very day she’d come to town. Or the fact that the driver had left her in the ditch.
Had it been an accident or had someone intentionally run her off the road?
* * *
to remember details about the car. The driver was probably some joyriding teenager, or maybe a drunk driver.
But the message on her mirror at home taunted her.
Someone didn’t want her here. Actually a lot of people didn’t want her here. Had one of them run her into that ditch to get rid of her?
She unfastened her seat belt and started to climb from the car, but Chaz took her arm and helped her out. For a moment she was dizzy, but he steadied her and the world righted itself.
“You are hurt,” he said in a gruff voice.
“I’ve been through worse,” she said, then immediately regretted her comment when his gaze locked with hers. They both knew she’d barely survived that crash. Although no one knew how she’d escaped the burning vehicle.
Chaz started to say something, but the sound of a siren wailing rent the air, and red lights twirled in the night sky as the ambulance approached. A second later, the tow truck rolled in on its heels, and Tawny-Lynn had to succumb to an exam by the paramedics.
Meanwhile, Chaz spoke with Henry, the fiftysomething owner of the auto repair shop, and supervised as the man towed her Jeep from the ditch.
“Your blood pressure’s a little high, miss,” the blond medic said.
“Wouldn’t you think that’s normal after an accident?” she said wryly.
He nodded, then listened to her heart while the other medic cleaned her forehead and applied a small butterfly bandage.
“Heart sounds okay,” the medic said. He used a penlight and examined her eyes, instructing her to follow the light.
“I’m really fine,” Tawny-Lynn said. “I was wearing my seat belt so I didn’t hit the windshield.”
“How about the steering wheel?”
She nodded. “My chest did, but nothing is broken.” She had suffered broken ribs in the bus accident and knew that kind of breath-robbing pain.
“We should take you in for X-rays.”
Tawny-Lynn shook her head. “No need. I told you, I’m fine.”
The medics exchanged looks as Chaz approached. “If you won’t go in, you need to sign a waiver, miss.”
“Then let me sign it. I just want to go home.” Not that she considered White Forks home anymore. But she didn’t like people hovering over her.
She’d had too much of that after the bus wreck. Of course, the hovering had been people demanding that she remember, pressuring her, wanting answers that she couldn’t give.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital for observation,” Chaz suggested.
She’d been taking care of herself far too long to welcome attention, especially from Chaz Camden.
“I don’t need a hospital,” she said. “It was just a little accident.”
The medic handed her a form attached to a clipboard, and she gave them her autograph.
They packed up and left just as Henry finished dragging her SUV from the ditch. The thing was old and beat up, so a bent fender with a little body damage didn’t faze her. Not as long as the car would run.
“You shouldn’t drive it until I check it out,” Henry said. “Front end probably needs realignment. And that back tire is as bald as a baby’s butt.”
“How long will it take to replace the tire and check the alignment?”
“Day or two. I can call you when I’m done.”
Tawny-Lynn hedged. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she also didn’t want to get stranded on her way back to Austin. And her father’s old pickup was at the ranch, so she’d have transportation. “All right.”
“I’ll give you a lift home,” Chaz offered.
She didn’t want to be in the same car with Chaz—to share the same air—because he smelled too good, too darn masculine.
And whether or not she wanted to admit it, she was shaken by the accident and would love to lean on him.
But she couldn’t allow herself to do that.
She grabbed her purse from the Jeep, then removed one of her business cards with her phone number on it. “Call me when you have it ready.”
By the time she finished talking to Henry, Chaz had unloaded her supplies and stowed them in the trunk of his squad car.
Henry waved to her, then jumped in the tow truck and chugged away, pulling her Jeep behind him, the clank of metal echoing as he disappeared from sight.
“He’ll give you a fair price,” Chaz said as if he sensed her concerns about money.
She didn’t comment. Instead she walked around to the passenger side of his car and climbed in. The world was spinning again, the seconds before she’d slammed into the ditch taking her back seven years.
She massaged her temple, but the sound of screams and crying reverberated in her head.
“Tawny-Lynn,” Chaz said softly. “Are you sure you’re all right?” He closed his hand over hers, and her fingers tingled with awareness, unsettling her even more. She desperately wanted to hold on to him. To have someone assure her that things would be all right.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said.
* * *
all right. She was all alone. Everyone in Camden Crossing hated her, and the only way to fix that was to remember what had happened that day.
Chaz gave her a sympathetic look, then started the car and drove to White Forks. The woods backing up to the ranch seemed darker and more ominous tonight. Chaz maneuvered the dirt drive, avoiding the worst potholes, then parked in front of the house.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard an animal rustling in dry leaves as she climbed out. Then the howl of a coyote as if it was close by.
Chaz opened the trunk and lifted one of the boxes, and she grabbed two bags of supplies and led the way up the steps. But when she touched the doorknob to unlock the door, it swung open.
Chaz immediately pressed a hand across her chest to stop her from entering. “Did you lock it when you left?”
She nodded, remembering the bloody message on her mirror.
Was someone inside now?
* * *
to full alert. He set the box on the porch, removed his weapon and scanned the front of the property. He hadn’t seen anyone pulling up, and there were no cars in sight.
Still, the door was unlocked, and on the heels of Tawny-Lynn’s so-called accident, that raised his suspicions.
He pressed a finger to his lips to shush her, then motioned for her to stay behind him. He inched inside, looking left then right, shocked at the stacks of papers and junk filling every nook and cranny of the living room and kitchen.
The stench of stale beer and liquor mingled with mold, and gave him an understanding of the mammoth amount of trash bags and cleaning supplies Tawny-Lynn had bought.
It had been years since he’d been in the house and tried to remember the layout. The master bedroom was on the main floor, the girls’ rooms upstairs.
The floor creaked as Tawny-Lynn followed behind him, and he veered to the left into the master suite. It was just as nasty and cluttered as the front rooms.
But no one was inside.
“I don’t hear anything,” Tawny-Lynn whispered.
Neither did he, but a predator could be hiding in a closet or upstairs, ready to attack. He slowly closed his hand around the bedroom closet doorknob and yanked it open, his gun raised. It was empty except for the stacks of old shoes, hats and clothing.
“Stay here while I check the upstairs.”
“No, I’m going with you,” Tawny-Lynn whispered.
He gave her a sharp look, then decided maybe it was best if she did follow him, in case the intruder was hiding in the storage shed outside. He didn’t want to leave her alone.
They crossed back through the room, then he tiptoed up the steps, but the wooden boards creaked beneath his weight. The first room was Peyton’s, still decorated like it had been years ago. For a moment, grief hit him as an image of Ruth sitting cross-legged on Peyton’s bed flashed in front of his eyes.
Heaving a breath to refocus, he yanked open the closet door, but all he found were Peyton’s clothes. Jeans and T-shirts, a prom dress.
The softball cleats gave him another pain in his chest. No wonder the parents of the three girls who’d died couldn’t forget.
No one should have to bury a child.
He kept his gun poised as he pivoted, Tawny-Lynn’s choppy breathing echoing behind him as he entered the hall and inched to her room.
He paused at the doorway, anger bolting through him at the sight of the mirror.
“What the hell?”
“That was there when I first arrived,” Tawny-Lynn whispered.
He swung around to her. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Tawny-Lynn shrugged. “I had no idea how long it had been there.”
Chaz cursed, then strode forward to examine it. He studied the writing, then took a sniff. “Looks like blood but it’s dry, so no smell. I’ll take samples and send to the crime lab.”
Tawny-Lynn nodded, then he stepped inside the bathroom and cursed again. “Was this here, too?”
Her eyes widened in shock as she entered. Then she shook her head in denial.
Chaz was disgusted at the sight.
The walls were covered in more blood. Fresh blood.
Whoever had broken in had written another message on the walls.
We don’t want you here.
Leave or die.
* * *
inside Boulder’s house with the girl. Dammit to hell and back.
Chaz asked too many questions. He just wouldn’t give up investigating his sister’s disappearance and the bus wreck that had taken those girls’ lives.
Why couldn’t he let it go?
It was over. Years ago.
But now Tawny-Lynn was back.
What if she remembered something while she was in town? What if she remembered
That he’d been there?
No, Tawny-Lynn had sustained a head injury that had robbed those memories, wiped them out and given her a clean slate. She couldn’t remember now.
If she did, she’d have to die.