Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
Chaz studied the bathroom, his anger mounting. Tawny-Lynn hadn’t done anything to earn this kind of abusive treatment. Not certain he believed her earlier statement about the message, he pressed her again. “Why didn’t you call when you found that first message?”
Tawny-Lynn shrugged. “I know you and your family hate me.”
“I’m not my family,” Chaz said. “I’m the law, and no one is harassed or threatened on my watch without me taking it seriously.”
Tawny-Lynn averted her eyes as if she didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m going to take samples and look for prints.”
“In here or all through the house?”
He grimaced as he considered the question. “I’ll start in here.”
“With all this dust and clutter, it would probably be a nightmare to do every room.”
She was right. “I’ll check the doors and major surfaces. But it’ll take me a while. Let me grab my kit from the car.”
“Okay. I’ll bring in the rest of the cleaning supplies.”
“I’ll give you a hand. But I’d rather you not clean anything until I look around.”
He followed her down the stairs, noting how fragile and tired she looked. No telling what time she’d gotten up this morning, and then she’d driven for hours and walked into this disaster.
It took them three trips to bring everything inside. Chaz retrieved his kit and decided to check the doors and kitchen first, so Tawny-Lynn could at least clean up the kitchen enough to prepare a meal or make coffee in the morning.
She watched him as he shined a flashlight along the doorway and kitchen counter and took a couple of prints on the back doorknob and screen. There was so much dust on the piles of newspapers and table that he didn’t see any prints. Besides, there would have been no reason for the intruder to touch the empty liquor and beer bottles Boulder had thrown into the heap in the corner
“I’m done in here if you want to start cleaning this room while I’m upstairs.”
“Thanks. I don’t think I could eat anything in this house until it’s fumigated.”
He chuckled. “Your father obviously never threw anything away.”
“Or took out the garbage.” She grabbed a trash bag and began to sort the cans and bottles into one bag for recycling, while he headed to the stairs.
He yanked on gloves and set to work. On the chance that the intruder hadn’t worn gloves and had touched the railing, he examined it, found a print and lifted it. Then he realized it was probably Tawny-Lynn’s and asked for a sample of hers for elimination purposes when he sent the others to the lab.
Upstairs, he scraped off a sample of the blood on the dresser mirror and dusted the gilded frame, but found nothing. Then he moved to the bathroom and checked the sink’s countertop, but if someone had touched it, they’d wiped it clean.
He took a generous sampling of the blood on the wall, hoping to learn something from it. Was it human blood?
He photographed the writing, then took pictures of the message on the mirror, as well. Maybe a handwriting expert could analyze it. And if he had a suspect, he could compare samples. The dot over the
in the world
had a curly tip. The writing also slanted downward at an angle and looked as if someone had jabbed at the wall out of anger.
He paused in the bedroom, his mind ticking as he wondered how the intruder had known this room was Tawny-Lynn’s. It was certainly not as frilly as Peyton’s, and there were dozens of sports posters on the wall, but no nameplate or picture of Tawny-Lynn to give it away. A plain navy comforter covered the antique iron bed, a teddy bear and rag doll sat on the bookshelf above a sea of mystery books, and CDs were stacked in a CD holder by a scarred pine desk.
Which suggested that the intruder had known the family well enough to know which room belonged to her.
And that he or she might have been in the house before.
* * *
trash and old food off the kitchen counter and into the garbage bag. She’d already filled up three bags and was going to need a truck to haul away the junk once she finished with the house.
Exhaustion pulled at her shoulders, a headache pulsing behind her eyes. a result of the accident she assumed. Or maybe it was due to the mounds of dust in the house.
She’d have to stock up on her allergy medication.
Carrying that bag out the back door, her gaze scanned the woods beyond. Was the person who’d left her those vile messages hiding out now, watching her? Hoping she’d flee the town as she had seven years ago?
“I don’t want to be in Camden Crossing any more than you want me here,” she muttered.
“Who are you talking to?”
Tawny-Lynn startled and spun around. Chaz stood in the kitchen doorway, his hand covering the gun at his waist. “Did you see someone out here?”
She shook her head, silently berating herself. “No, I was talking to myself.”
His eyes darkened as he studied her. “Are you sure you don’t have a concussion?”
“I’m just exhausted,” she admitted. “But I’m not going to bed until this kitchen is clean, so you can go home if you’re finished.”
“Actually I came down for a bucket and bleach.”
She frowned. “What for?”
“To clean the blood off your wall and mirror.”
“That’s not necessary, Chaz. You’ve done enough already.” In fact, it felt too good to have him here. Made her feel safe. Secure. Needy.
She couldn’t lean on him or anyone else.
“I’ll do it once I finish with the kitchen.”
“No way,” he said gruffly. “I don’t intend to leave you here with that disgusting threat in your room, especially after you were in an accident.”
God, his voice sounded almost protective. Odd, when years ago he’d hated her just like everyone else.
He didn’t wait for a reply. He rummaged through the boxes of supplies, grabbed a bucket, a container of bleach and a sponge and strode back toward the stairs.
Tawny-Lynn sighed shakily and rushed back inside, but the wind whistling through the trees unnerved her and she slammed the door. Maybe it was better if Chaz was here, acting as the sheriff, of course, just in case the intruder had stuck around.
Her adrenaline kicked in, and she finished scraping off the counters, chairs, table and floors of junk, carefully stowing any unpaid bills she located, and there were dozens, into a basket on the counter. Next, she tackled the refrigerator, not surprised to find it virtually empty except for condiments that had expired, something moldy growing in a jar, a jug of sour milk and a carton of outdated eggs.
Next she tossed a rusted can opener, a toaster that was so crusted with grime that she doubted she could ever clean it, then dish towels that were mildewed.
When she finished with that, she pulled out the bleach and industrial cleaner and scoured the sink, counter and the inside and outside of the refrigerator. The counters were worn, but after several layers of crud had been removed they were passable. Other things might need to be replaced.
That is, unless she just decided to sell the ranch as it was. Maybe that was best. She didn’t have money to invest in the house. The property held the real value. Whoever bought the ranch could tear down the house and build a new one or remodel this one the way they chose.
By the time she finished and mopped the floor, her body was aching for sleep. Footsteps sounded, and Chaz appeared, his big body filling the doorway.
She was filthy, sweaty and covered in dirt, while he looked so handsome and strong that he stole the breath from her.
“You look like you’re about to fall over,” he said.
Tawny-Lynn leaned against the counter. At least it smelled better in this room. “It’s been a long day. A good night’s sleep will work wonders.” Although truthfully, she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in nearly a decade.
The nightmares dogged her every time she closed her eyes.
* * *
, and Chaz caught her by the arm. “Exhausted? You’re dizzy.”
“It’s just the cleaning fumes,” she said, her voice strained. “I have allergies.”
He nodded, unconvinced. “I’m going to send Jimmy James out here tomorrow to install new locks on the house. Dead bolts, too.”
“I can take care of it,” Tawny-Lynn said.
“Don’t argue.” Chaz gestured toward the mess in the living room. “You have your hands full already.”
She rubbed her forehead, then looked up at him warily. “Why are you helping me, Chaz? I thought you hated me just like your folks and the rest of the town.”
Chaz’s chest tightened at her directness. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t hate her, that he regretted the way he’d treated her after Ruth had disappeared, that he’d shouldered his own share of guilt and had been desperate for answers to satisfy his father.
But there was no way he could get personal with her. Revealing the truth would make him vulnerable. And he had to focus.
One day he would find his sister. That was all that mattered.
So he kept the conversation on a professional level. “I’m the sheriff, I’m just doing my job.”
Something akin to disappointment flared in her big green eyes. “Of course. Well, thanks for the ride home and for cleaning the walls.”
He nodded. “I’ll let you know if I find a hit on any of the prints or the blood samples.”
Tawny-Lynn led him to the front door, but he hung there, hesitant to leave. She looked so small and fragile. Vulnerable.
She’d been here less than twenty-four hours and already had an accident, which could have been intentional, and an intruder in her house who’d left vile threats against her.
Tawny-Lynn held the door edge, and offered him a brave smile. “Well, even if you are just doing your job, I appreciate it, Chaz. I know how the locals feel about me. I...just wish I could give them what they want.”
He narrowed his eyes, pained at the sorrow in her tone. “You suffered, too. You lost your sister. People should have been more sensitive to that.”
She shrugged, but the effort didn’t meet her eyes.
He had the sudden impulse to reach up and pull her against him. To hold her and assure her that everything would be all right. That she’d done all she could, just as he had.
But touching her would be wrong. Would make it more difficult to keep his distance and do his job.
And his job was to keep her safe and to find the person who’d threatened her.
So he handed her his business card, told her to call him if she needed anything, then headed to his car, determined to ignore the pull of attraction between them.
* * *
Chaz leave with mixed feelings. As long as he’d been in the house, she could chase away the monsters.
But when she was left alone in the house, the ghosts seeped from the walls to haunt her.
For a moment she couldn’t breathe. The familiar panic attacks she’d suffered after the bus accident threatened. Willing herself to be strong, she closed her eyes and took slow, even breaths.
It had been seven years. She was alive. She was safe.
Or was she?
Judging from the bloody message on her mirror and walls, someone didn’t want her here.
A shudder coursed up her body and she locked the door, then shoved a chair in front of it. The chair wouldn’t keep an intruder out, but at least if it fell over, it might wake her.
If she ever managed to fall asleep.
Dusty and grimy from the work she’d done and achy from the earlier nosedive into the ditch, she forced herself to leave the chaotic mess waiting in the living room, grabbed a bottle of cleaner for the shower and climbed the stairs. She’d tackle the den tomorrow.
Chaz had erased the message from the mirror, but the ugly words still taunted her. She stripped the sheets, found clean ones in the closet and put them on the bed. Then she retrieved her toiletry bag and walked into the bathroom.
The walls smelled of bleach, but the shower looked grungy, so she scrubbed it, then the toilet and sink. Then she turned on the water, stripped and climbed in the shower. The hot water felt heavenly on her aching muscles, and she soaped and washed her body and hair, then rinsed off. She wrapped a towel around her damp hair, then stepped from the shower and brushed her teeth twice to get rid of the dust in her mouth.
She towel dried her hair, slipped on a pair of pajamas, took a sleeping pill and fell into bed. Seconds later, she closed her eyes and drifted off.
But even as she faded into sleep, images of the bloody message flashed back.
If she didn’t leave town, would the intruder come back and kill her?
Chaz hesitated before driving away from White Forks, but he couldn’t stay with Tawny-Lynn around the clock.
If the threats continued, he’d have to.
He carried the blood samples and prints he’d collected to the sheriff’s office. His deputy was on the phone when he walked in.
Judging from the goofy grin on his face, he was talking to his girlfriend, Sheila.
He looked up at Chaz and dropped his feet from the desk. “Listen, honey, I’ve gotta go. Call you later.”
He hung up, then quirked his brows at Chaz. “I didn’t expect you back tonight.”
“There was some trouble out at White Forks.”
“You mean that place where the Boulder broad lives?”
“She hasn’t lived there in years, but yes, that’s the one. She came back to town to get her old man’s ranch ready to sell.”
“I heard folks around here don’t much like her.”
Chaz scowled at his deputy. “Who’ve you been listening to, Ned?”
“No one in particular. Some old women were gossiping about her in the diner. Said if she’d spoken up about what happened that day, they might have tracked down your sister and Peyton Boulder.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Hell, someone even said that she helped them run off.”
Chaz silently cursed. Ned had come from a neighboring town and had formed his opinions based on rumors. “First of all, I don’t think my sister just ran off. She wouldn’t have done that. Second, Tawny-Lynn almost died in that crash herself. She was unconscious when the paramedics found her, had a broken leg and a concussion.”
Ned made a clicking sound with his teeth. “The concussion caused her amnesia?”
“Yes, according to the doctor,” Chaz said.
“But the accident— Didn’t the sheriff think that was suspicious?”
Chaz nodded. “There were skid marks from another vehicle on the pavement, but it started raining and they couldn’t get a good print.”
“Why would someone run the bus off the road?”
“Good question. The bus was carrying the softball team. Could have been some teen following too close or—”
“Competitors from another team?”
“I don’t think so. The sheriff looked into each of the girl’s lives, but none of them had any serious enemies.”
“So what’s your theory?” Ned asked.
Chaz contemplated the file he had at home. How many times had he studied the damn thing for answers?
“I don’t know. Two girls went missing from Sunset Mesa before the Camden incident and were never found. A lot of people think that a serial kidnapper took them. It’s possible he was stalking one of the girls on the team and caused the accident, then kidnapped Ruth and Peyton.”
“He’d have to be strong to wrestle both girls.”
“Not if he had a gun, or if they were hurt in the crash.”
His deputy studied his fingernails. “Do you have any idea who this guy is?”
Chaz shook his head. “No, and that’s just a theory. No proof.”
“But you all think that Tawny-Lynn Boulder saw this guy that day?”
“Some people think that. Like I said, she was unconscious when the medics arrived. But somehow she got out of the bus before it caught fire. Considering the fact that she had a broken leg and head injury, it’s not likely she walked.”
“Meaning someone dragged her to safety. But if it was the kidnapper, why not take her, too?”
“Maybe he was fixated on Ruth or Peyton. And like I said, Tawny-Lynn had a broken leg.” He gritted his teeth. Depending on what the sick bastard’s plans were, he probably hadn’t wanted her with the injury.
“Anyway,” Chaz continued. “Tonight someone left a bloody threat for Tawny-Lynn at White Forks. I took samples and managed to lift a few prints. Call the courier to pick it up, take it back to the lab and analyze it.”
Chaz took a form from the desk and filled out the paperwork for chain of custody. “Tell the lab to call me as soon as they get the results.”
The deputy narrowed his eyes as he examined the photograph of the bloody message. “Someone really wants her gone.”
“It looks that way.” Chaz headed back to the door. “But it’s our job to protect her, Deputy. And to find out who made that threat.”
* * *
the bat with sweaty palms. It was the bottom of the ninth and the Camden Cats were one run behind. The team was depending on her.
The pitcher threw a curve ball that came in low, and she barely managed to check her swing in time before the umpire called ball one.
Two more pitches and she’d tipped the ball twice. Her stomach felt jittery. Her chest hurt. She couldn’t strike out now.
Another ball and it nearly hit her shoulder. She jumped back, the ball whizzing by her head. She stepped aside to steady herself, then ground the bat at the base and raised it, ready.
The pitcher wound up as the crowd and her teammates chanted her name. A second later, she swung at the ball. Metal connected with it, sending the ball flying, and she took off running as the ball soared over the fence. Her teammates screamed in excitement, the crowd roared and Peyton, who was on second base, sailed around the bases. Tawny-Lynn was faster than her sister and nearly caught her as they raced into home plate.
Her homerun sent the team one point ahead.
Roars and cheers from the crowd echoed in her ears as Ruth stepped up to bat. Three straight swings though and she struck out.
Still, the Cats had won. The girls rushed her, clapping and shouting and hugging. The coach pounded her on the back. “You’re our hero today, T!”
She beamed a smile as they grabbed their gym bags and jogged toward the bus. More congratulations and pats as the girls clamored into their seats.
“I have to stop by the bank. Let’s meet up at the pizza parlor to celebrate,” Coach Wake announced. He made his way back to his car while the bus driver fired up the bus.
Tawny-Lynn settled into a seat by herself while Peyton jumped in beside Ruth, and they started whispering and giggling.
Peyton was boy crazy, and Ruth was interested in someone, but they were keeping it a secret, talking in hushed voices. Jealousy sparked her to glare at them, but her sister pulled Ruth closer and tucked their heads together to shut her out.
The bus chugged around a curve, but it was dark on the country road, a storm brewing, thunder rumbling. A car raced up behind the bus and rammed it, and the bus jolted forward. The driver shouted, then tires screeched and the bus swerved toward the embankment. The ridge loomed below, and fear shot through Tawny-Lynn.
She hated heights. Had always been scared on the switchbacks.
The bus jerked again, something scraped the side, then the bus went into a skid. One of the girls screamed, brakes squealed, then the bus flew out of control, slammed into the metal guardrail and careened over the ridge.
Backpacks and gym bags slid onto the floor, and she gripped the seat edge to keep from falling. Bodies fell into the aisle, blood was flying, and she was thrown against the metal seat top as the bus crashed into the ravine.
Sometime later, she roused. It was dark, so dark...pain throbbed through her chest and leg.
She couldn’t move. It was deathly quiet.
Then she felt hands pulling at her, moving her. She tried to open her eyes, but the world was foggy.
Breathing rasped around her. She tried to see who was pulling her from the bus, but it was too dark. Then she heard crying again—another scream. Voices.
Was her sister all right?
She struggled to see, but...there was a man...his face...hidden in shadows. Who was he?
Tawny-Lynn jerked awake, panting for a breath. The dream...had been so real. A memory.
She had heard a voice. Seen a face.
A man’s? A woman’s? Peyton’s maybe?
God help her, who was it?
* * *
a cold beer when he made it home, his mind obsessing over Tawny-Lynn. Was she sleeping now? Or was she awake, terrified the person who’d left her that bloody message would return and make good on his threat?
Tension knotted his shoulders. He wanted to be back at White Forks watching out for her. Making sure she was safe.
Dammit, no. Tawny-Lynn was the last woman on earth he needed to be attracted to.
Life would be so much simpler if she cleaned that place up quickly, hung the for-sale sign, left town and never came back.
Then he wouldn’t have to think about her being on that deserted run-down ranch by herself where God knew anyone could sneak up and attack her.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have enemies. She had too many to count.
The people who’d lost family members in that crash despised her for not being able to give them closure by identifying the person who’d hit the bus and caused the crash.
Their family members, Coach Wake and half the town had also been questioned as suspects and resented it because Tawny-Lynn could have cleared their names.
Coach Wake has literally sobbed at the news of the crash, saying maybe if he’d been with the girls on the bus he could have done something to save them. Instead, he’d driven his own car, taken a side road, then stopped for cash and a surprise cake to take to the celebration dinner.
Tawny-Lynn’s delicate face flashed in Chaz’s head, and he grimaced, sipped his beer and headed to his home office. The cabin was small, but he’d carved a workspace in the second bedroom where he’d hung a gigantic whiteboard and laid out everything he knew about the missing girls from Sunset Mesa and Camden Crossing.
A smaller board held photos of other missing young women from various states for comparison purposes so he could look for connections.
Once again, he studied the pictures former sheriff Harold Simmons had taken of the accident. The bus was a mess, dented and crushed against a boulder in the ravine, flames shooting from all sides.
Keith Plumbing, a local handyman had driven up on the scene and called it in. His statement said he’d first seen smoke, then stopped and realized it was a bus and called 911. He’d run down the embankment to rescue the students trapped inside, but by the time he reached the bus, it burst into flames. He saw Tawny-Lynn lying in the dirt several feet away. But no one else was around.
Due to the fact that Keith called in the accident and had a history of drinking on the job, and he’d worked in Camden Crossing and Sunset Mesa, the sheriff questioned him as a person of interest. Plumbing could have caused the crash, then lied about the timing, dragged Tawny-Lynn out to safety but couldn’t save the others.
Although he’d sworn he hadn’t seen Peyton or Ruth. And if he’d hurt them or kidnapped them, where had he taken them? He hadn’t had enough time between the time of the crash and when he’d called in the accident to dispose of a body.
Another photograph showed Tawny-Lynn unconscious on the stretcher, her leg twisted, blood streaking her face and hands. She looked so pale and fragile that he wondered how she’d survived.
Shaking off emotions he didn’t want to feel for her, he glanced at the list of suspects the sheriff had considered. Plumbing had been one. He’d also questioned Barry Dothan, a young man with a mental disability that affected his learning and behavior.
Dothan liked to watch teenagers and took pictures of them on the track, swim team and softball field. But his mother swore that Barry was harmless, that he would never hurt a soul. The pictures of Ruth and Peyton posted on the corkboard above his bed were the only evidence that incriminated him. Some of the girls at school claimed they felt uncomfortable around him, but none of them had accused him of inappropriate behavior.
Chaz downed the rest of his beer and grabbed another, pacing to calm himself. God, his heart hurt just imagining what might have happened to his sister and Ruth.
He skimmed the former sheriff’s notes. The investigators they’d called in from the county had found remains of three girls and the driver in the ashes left after the bus had exploded.
Ruth and Peyton were not among them.
So what the hell had happened to them?
Could Plumbing have had more time than they’d originally thought, time to kill the girls and dump their bodies somewhere?
They’d searched the man’s truck. No girls, blood or forensics inside.
They’d also combed the area surrounding the crash site for bodies, a dead end as well.
Dothan didn’t seem smart enough to abduct two girls and hide them.
But nobody else was there.
There had to be, though—or else how had Tawny-Lynn escaped the burning bus?
Peyton or Ruth could have dragged her out. But then what?
Frustrated, he slammed his fist on the desk, rattling paper clips and files.
He forced himself to look at the pictures of the two girls who’d gone missing from Sunset Mesa the year before. Almost the same time of year.
Avery Portland and Melanie Hoit. Avery grew up with a single mother, worked at the ice cream shop and was voted most likely to succeed in her class. She was popular, on the dance team at school, and class president.
Melanie was a cheerleader, pretty and aspired to be a model. Some of her classmates described her as the girl everyone wanted to be. A few others commented that she was a snob.
But so far everyone they’d questioned had alibis.
And neither girl had been found. No body. No ransom calls.
The parents wanted closure just as the residents in Camden Crossing did.
He slumped down in the chair and glanced back at the photo of Tawny-Lynn. No wonder his parents and the other family members of the victims had turned on her.
She might be the only lead they had.
He understood people’s anger and frustration.