Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
But why would someone want to hurt her? Then she’d never be able to tell them who else had been there that day.
The answer hit him like a fist in the gut.
Someone didn’t want her to remember because there had been foul play.
And if she could identify the culprit, she could put him or her in jail....
* * *
house where Tawny-Lynn slept.
The images of the girls who’d died tormented him. He hadn’t meant to kill them all. He loved them too much to do them harm.
But things had gotten out of hand. Then everything had gone wrong.
His gut churned with memories of the screams of those girls in the fire. That had been...terrible. He had nightmares to this day. He would never have wanted any of them to suffer like that.
His heart was racing as he remembered the panic that had seized him when the bus had exploded.
Ah, sweet Peyton. So easy to love.
And Ruth... He’d wanted her so badly back then.
Another few months and maybe Tawny-Lynn would have appealed to him, too. She did now.
So sexy and athletic and that soft, blond hair... She’d turned out to be pretty after all.
Too bad she might have to die.
Tawny-Lynn couldn’t go back to sleep. She didn’t even want to go back to sleep, and relive the same old nightmare.
If only she could recall the face of the person who’d rescued her.
She climbed from bed, threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and yanked her hair back into a ponytail. The mammoth job of cleaning the rest of the house awaited her.
But she needed coffee and food, and now that the kitchen was clean, she needed some groceries to get by on until she could make the necessary repairs to the ranch.
She jogged down the stairs, but the sound of her sister’s voice called to her as if she was begging her to find her.
She grabbed her purse and cell phone, then remembered her car was in the shop. She’d seen the keys to her father’s pickup somewhere. If it was still running, she’d take it into town.
She glanced around the living room, daunted by the task she faced, then went back to the kitchen and remembered that she’d put the keys in the wicker basket with the bills that needed attention. Keys in hand, she jogged outside and found the truck parked beneath the makeshift carport her father had erected. The ancient truck was rusty and chugged and coughed as she tried to start it, as if it hadn’t been cranked in ages. But her father had to have driven it to pick up his booze and the junk boxes he collected.
After three attempts, the battery finally charged to life, and she pulled from the carport. Remembering the intruder the night before, she scanned the property surrounding the ranch, but everything looked still and quiet.
Relieved, she barreled down the dirt drive and turned on the road to town. She passed the high school, pausing for a second to watch as the teenagers began to arrive. Students had gathered in the parking lot to hang out before going inside just as she and Ruth and Peyton used to do with the team. Softball season was almost over, and a sign out front congratulated the team for making it to the state finals. They were probably beginning play-offs now. Coach Wake was sure to be ecstatic.
She sped up, entered the town square and parked in front of the diner, desperate for coffee and breakfast. Thunderclouds darkened the sky, promising rain, and she pulled on her denim jacket and walked up the sidewalk to the diner. An old-fashioned hitching post and wagon wheel made the wooden structure look like a building from the past.
The delicious scent of bacon and coffee engulfed her when she entered, and her stomach growled. When had she eaten last?
She glanced around the room in search of an empty booth and suddenly felt tension charge the air. Voices quieted. Laughter died. A few whispers echoed through the diner.
Nerves climbed up her neck.
Suddenly Chaz appeared looking larger than life and so sexy that need spiraled through her.
“Good morning, Tawny-Lynn.”
She wasn’t so sure of that. “Maybe I should leave.”
He shook his head. “No, sit down, have breakfast with me.”
Did he know what he was doing? “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
He took her arm and ushered her into a booth to the left. “Well, I do. I’m sheriff. People had better take note.”
Some emotion she couldn’t define swelled inside her. She hadn’t had anyone stand up for her in a long time.
She sank into the booth, exhausted already, and the day hadn’t even begun. Chaz motioned for the waitress, and she appeared, a pencil jammed into her bouffant hairdo.
“Morning, Sheriff.” She glanced down at Tawny-Lynn, her penciled-in eyebrows knit together. “Hey, sugar. You new to town?”
Tawny-Lynn fiddled with the paper napkin as she read the woman’s name tag. Her name was Hilda. “I used to live here. I’m Tawny-Lynn Boulder.”
“Oh, right, hon, I heard you were coming home. So sorry about your daddy.” Hilda set two coffee cups on the gingham tablecloth and filled them with coffee from the pot on her tray. “He used to come in for coffee every now and then.”
When he was sober? Tawny-Lynn couldn’t imagine.
But she relaxed at the woman’s friendly smile.
“What’ll you two have?”
“The breakfast special for me.” Chaz grinned at Tawny-Lynn. “They make the best biscuits in town.”
She noted the chalkboard. The special was three eggs, sausage and pancakes. If she ate all that, she’d be too full to get any work done.
“I’ll take the country breakfast. Scrambled eggs with cheese.”
“Sausage or bacon?”
Hilda smiled again, then called their order in and headed to the next table.
“Did you sleep any last night?” Chaz asked.
She fiddled with her napkin. “A little. But I dreamed about the crash.”
He was watching her, his interest piqued, but he didn’t push. “You dream about it a lot?”
She nodded. “All the time.”
“What happens in the dream?”
She tucked a strand of hair that had escaped the ponytail holder behind her ear. “I’m at the ball game. We win, everyone’s excited, cheering. Then we run to the bus. Coach says we’ll meet for pizza.” Goose bumps skated up her arms.
“Then we’re in the bus and everyone’s talking and then the bus jerks...like someone hit us, and the driver loses control.”
Chaz sucked in a sharp breath. “That fits with our theory.”
“You believe someone caused the accident?”
“Yes, but we don’t know if it was an accident, or if someone intentionally slammed into the bus.”
Tawny-Lynn’s gaze met his. She’d never heard the authority’s theories or if they had any suspects. The sheriff had expected her to have the answers.
“Any leads on the driver of the vehicle who hit us?”
He shook his head. “A small paint sample was taken, but it got lost in the mess that came afterward.”
A strained silence fell over them as Hilda brought their food. Chaz poured syrup on his pancakes and wolfed them down, while she made a breakfast sandwich with the eggs, biscuit and sausage. He was right. The biscuit melted in her mouth.
“Any more trouble last night?”
“No, thank goodness.”
He sipped his coffee. “How’d you get into town?”
“Daddy’s truck. It’s old but it made it.” She stirred sweetener into her coffee. “Guess I’ll need to sell it, too.” She shrugged. “Or maybe I’ll just give it away. I doubt it’s worth anything.”
She felt someone beside them, then looked up at Coach Wake who’d stopped by the table. “Tawny-Lynn, I was sorry about your father. Are you here to stay and run the ranch?”
Her stomach clenched. She’d once loved softball more than anything in her life. The coach had been her and Peyton and Ruth’s idol.
Now he was a reminder of the worst day of her life, and softball was a sport she couldn’t stand to watch.
* * *
shutting down before his eyes. She’d been devouring her breakfast, but dropped the biscuit onto her plate and sipped her water.
“No, I’m not staying,” she said, her voice warbling. “The ranch hasn’t been a working ranch in a long time.”
Coach Wake glanced at Chaz, then at Tawny-Lynn as if he were trying to dissect their relationship.
“Then you’re going to sell it?” the coach asked.
Tawny-Lynn nodded. “Just as soon as I clean it up.”
Coach Wake shifted as someone else passed by. “If you need help, Keith Plumbing can use the work. He did some repairs around my house. My wife thought he was reliable and did a good job.”
Tawny-Lynn twisted her napkin into shreds. “Thanks for the reference.”
Two teenage girls brushed by, then stopped to speak to the coach, both of them giggling. “Hey, Coach, thought you said you were laying off Donna’s gravy.”
He patted his stomach. “I need the calories to keep up with you girls. We’re doing sprints this afternoon.”
The girls groaned, then the redheaded one checked her watch. “We gotta go. We’re going to miss first bell.”
They rushed off, and Coach Wake rubbed his stomach. “Well, guess I’d better get to school. We have practice this afternoon. Did you know we made the play-offs?”
Tawny-Lynn took another sip of her coffee. “I saw the announcement on the marquis in front of the school on my way in to town. Congratulations.”
The coach’s smile broadened. “We’ve got a good team. But I haven’t had a pitcher like you since you left. Stop by and watch the drills if you want. You could show the girls a thing or two.”
“I don’t think I’ll have time, but thanks,” she said. “I have my work cut out for me.”
“Okay, but the offer still stands.” He said goodbye to Chaz, then headed toward the door, but two women stopped him to chat on his way out. At least the coach had been friendly to Tawny-Lynn and hadn’t treated her like a piranha like other people did.
If he remembered correctly, she’d been the star of the team and had won the game for them that last day.
His sister had adored the coach, too, just like all the girls had. And Coach Wake had cried like a baby at the funerals of the girls who hadn’t survived the crash. He’d also been a leader in organizing search parties for Ruth and Peyton in the days following their disappearance.
“Are you okay?” Chaz asked.
A weary sigh escaped Tawny-Lynn. “Yes. But seeing him reminds me of...”
“Peyton and that day.”
She nodded, her eyes glittering with tears as she looked up at him. His heart ached for her. Had anyone comforted her after the crash?
Did she have a boyfriend back in Austin?
He motioned to Hilda to bring the bill. It didn’t matter to him if she did have a boyfriend. She didn’t want to be here in town, and he had a job to do.
He wouldn’t let himself even think about a relationship with anyone until this case was solved and he gave his parents closure about Ruth.
* * *
some air. The conversation with Coach Wake had stirred memories she tried hard to keep at bay.
Heck, everything about the town roused memories.
The diner was starting to clear as everyone paid their checks and left for work. A young man with blond hair, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt strode up to the table just as Chaz reached for the bill. Her fingers touched it at the same time and that annoying frisson of awareness sent a tingle through her.
“I’ve got it,” he said with a look that warned her not to argue.
“Hey, Sheriff,” the blond man said. “I got your message.”
Chaz shook the guy’s hand. “Yeah, Jimmy, this is Tawny-Lynn—the woman I told you about. She owns White Forks and needs new locks.”
His eyes flashed a smile at her as he tipped his cowboy hat. He was handsome in a rugged, good-old-boy kind of way. “Hey, ma’am. I’m Jimmy James, I own the locksmith shop.”
Tawny-Lynn shook his hand, annoyed that his hand didn’t make her tingle.
No, only Chaz Camden’s touch made her body quiver. The one man in town she could never be close to.
“I can get to those locks right away if you want.”
“Thanks. I’m going to pick up some groceries, then head back out to the ranch.”
He handed her his business card. “Give me a call when you get home, and I’ll run out.”
Home? White Forks was not her home anymore. But she didn’t argue. She accepted his card, then sat stiffly as Chaz paid the bill. They walked outside to her father’s truck together. Chaz leaned against it as she dug out her keys.
“I don’t know if you should use Keith Plumbing to do those repairs.” His mouth twitched into a frown. “There’s something about the man that rubs me the wrong way.”
Chaz shrugged. “I don’t know. But he was questioned after Ruth and Peyton went missing.”
Tawny-Lynn jerked her head up. “You mean he was a suspect?”
“He was a person of interest,” Chaz said. “He did some odd jobs for my parents, and he’d worked in Sunset Mesa around the same time the two girls went missing from that area.”
Tawny-Lynn gritted her teeth. She didn’t remember the man.
“How about the ranch? Did he do repairs there?”
Chaz shook his head. “Not according to your father.”
“Was anyone else questioned as a suspect?”
“Barry Dothan,” Chaz said. “Do you remember him? He was my age, but is mentally handicapped.”
“I do remember seeing him around town. He was odd, used to hang out by the field and watch us practice,” Tawny-Lynn said.
Chaz shrugged. “The sheriff found pictures of all the girls on the softball team and swim team plastered on his walls. But his mother claimed he was home the day of the crash.”
“You think she’d lie to protect him?”
“That’s hard to say. He has problems. She feels protective.”
“I don’t think he’d hurt anyone.”
“Maybe not intentionally. But he could have gotten confused. Maybe he showed up and Peyton and Ruth were hurt and scared of him. He got mad. There were rocks out there. He could have used one on Ruth or Peyton.”
And if her sister and Ruth had been injured, they might have been too weak to fight back.
“If he did hurt them, then why didn’t you find their bodies? Surely, he wasn’t smart enough to hide them somewhere.”
“That’s the reason the sheriff didn’t think he did it,” Chaz said. “And the reason he was never arrested.” Chaz reached for the truck door to open it for her. “I’m telling you so you’ll watch out for him and Plumbing. If one of them had something to do with Ruth’s and Peyton’s disappearance, he might be worried about your memory returning.”
Tawny-Lynn nodded. But she didn’t intend to run like the person who’d written those bloody messages wanted.
If Plumbing or Barry Dothan knew something, she’d find out. She needed to know the truth in order to move on.