Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
Tawny-Lynn left the diner, then walked across the street to the general store. She should have thought to buy groceries the night before, but she’d been overwhelmed by the dust and mess, and her only thought had been about cleaning.
She grabbed a cart as she entered, reminding herself that although she enjoyed cooking, she didn’t have time for fancy meals and wouldn’t be entertaining anyone. Most of her time would be spent cleaning out the house and working in the yard. She didn’t plan to be at White Forks long. Maybe a week, no more.
Once she put the ranch on the market, she’d go back to Austin, and let the real-estate agent handle the rest.
She gathered coffee and sweetener, eggs, milk, cereal, bread, cheese, sandwich meat, added a few canned goods and soups, then decided to pick up ingredients to fix her favorite chili and nacho pie. Both would make enough to last her a couple of nights and were simple to prepare.
Relying on her favorite go-to recipes, she dropped in corn, black beans, tomatoes, tortillas and seasonings, then sour cream, avocados and limes to make guacamole.
The store was fairly empty, but as she rounded the corner to the produce section, she almost bumped into a middle-aged woman with an overflowing cart. A gray-haired man she assumed to be the woman’s husband plucked a bag of oranges from a display table.
He scratched at his forehead when he spotted her. “Tawny-Lynn, is that you?”
Her hands tightened around the cart. “Sheriff Simmons?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “I’m not the sheriff anymore. Retired a couple of years ago. Chaz Camden took over.”
“Yes, I know. I saw Chaz earlier.”
Mrs. Simmons eyed her over her wire-rimmed glasses. “Sorry about your daddy, dear.”
“Thanks.” People probably judged her for not honoring him with a memorial service. Yet another reason for people to disapprove of her.
“What have you been doing with yourself?” Mr. Simmons asked.
“I started a landscaping business in Austin. I just came back to take care of the ranch.”
He squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry we never found out what happened to Peyton and Ruth. That case will always haunt me.”
Her throat thickened with emotions. “I know you did your best.”
“Did your memory of that day ever return?” Mrs. Simmons asked, a hopeful note in her voice.
Tawny-Lynn shook her head. “No. I guess the doctor was wrong when he said the amnesia was temporary.”
Guilt crawled through her, making her itch to run again. She gripped the cart and started away. “Well, it was nice to see you. I have to get back to the ranch.”
“Nice to see you, too,” the Simmonses said at once.
At least they’d been cordial to her, Tawny-Lynn thought, as she grabbed some fruit and headed to the checkout counter. The last time she’d talked to the sheriff he’d come out to the ranch when she’d been released from the hospital.
Everyone in town was hounding him to find Ruth and Peyton and get answers for the dead girls, and he’d interrogated her as if she’d caused the accident herself.
She paid for the groceries, then carried them outside and loaded them in her car. But as she pulled away, an eerie sense crept over her.
Was someone watching her?
She looked around, searching, but didn’t see anyone suspicious. A mother and her baby strolling in the park, a family climbing into their SUV, an elderly man walking into the hardware store leaning on a horsehead cane.
She was just being paranoid.
Still, she stayed alert as she drove through town, then found herself driving the opposite direction from home, out on Dirt Dauber Road, a road named after the mud daubers that had built nests in the cylinder of a small plane, causing it to crash. Oddly, that crash had occurred only a mile from where the school bus had collided into the boulder below the ridge.
Perspiration beaded on her neck as she parked, but she took a deep breath to calm herself. She had visited this site twice during the year after the accident, each time hoping it would trigger her memory.
Both times she’d had such panic attacks that she’d collapsed.
She was not going to do that today. She had to hold it together.
Determined, she walked over to the edge of the ridge. The guardrail had not only been repaired, but a sturdier metal one that was at least four inches higher had replaced it. Still the distance to the bottom of the ravine was daunting.
The wind stirred the leaves in the trees, their rustling sound mingling with the rumble of the brewing storm. The skies had darkened again, blotting out the sun.
She stared at the boulder below, an image of the bus teetering over the edge flashing into her mind. Was that a memory or simply a figment of her imagination due to the pictures and descriptions she’d seen?
A scream echoed in her head and she closed her eyes for a moment, launching back in time.
The ball game, the victory, they were going to get pizza, Ruth and Peyton whispering about some guy...then the jolt.
Had she looked back to see what had hit them?
No...no time. The bus lurched forward, was losing control. Screams, blood, glass shattering, metal scraping... then a loud crunch. She was falling, falling, struggling to grab hold of something to keep from going through
Then pain and she couldn’t move, and...darkness. Then hands touching her, a low voice whispering she would be all right. Fresh air hit her, and she gulped, her chest aching as she drew in a breath. But when she opened her eyes the face was dark. Blank. As if wearing a mask.
No, not a mask. As if there was no face...
* * *
eyes, her breathing coming in erratic pants. Why couldn’t she see the face?
Frustrated, she kicked at a rock and watched it tumble down the dirt into the ravine.
Suddenly that eerie feeling swept over her again, and she felt someone behind her. Watching her.
She must be paranoid, she reminded herself.
But when she glanced over her shoulder, a shadow moved. Trees rustled. Leaves crunched.
It wasn’t her imagination this time. A man was standing in the shadows, half hidden by the thick trees.
Not just any man—Barry Dothan.
And he was taking pictures of her from his hiding spot in the woods.
* * *
Sunset Mesa and parked at the sheriff’s office. He’d phoned ahead and Amanda Blair, the new sheriff of Sunset Mesa, had agreed to meet him.
He smelled coffee brewing as he entered and found a young woman in her twenties with amber hair pulled back into a ponytail pouring a mug at the scarred counter across from the front desk. She was petite but athletic looking, and as she turned, he noticed a steely glint in her eyes.
She might be compact, but her attitude screamed that she was tough and could handle the job.
He tipped his hat. “I’m here to meet the sheriff.”
She offered him a smile. “I’m the sheriff, Amanda Blair.” She extended her hand, and he shook it. “And don’t even start with how young I look. My father was a Texas Ranger. I started solving crimes when I was in diapers.”
He chuckled. “Sheriff Chaz Camden. Thanks for agreeing to meet me. And I wasn’t going to comment on your age.”
Her wry look indicated she knew he was lying. “Right.” She gestured toward the coffee, and he nodded, then waited while she poured him a mug. Then she led him to a desk in an adjoining office.
“What can I do for you, Chaz?”
He liked her directness and dropped into a wooden chair across from her desk. “I don’t know if your former sheriff shared information about our cold case with you.”
She drummed her nails on the desk. “He didn’t, but then again, Lager was having memory problems.” She sighed. “The mayor gave him a lot of leeway, but finally they had to ask him to step down.”
“I’m sorry.” He laid the file he’d brought with him on the desk. “A few years ago, two girls went missing from Sunset Mesa. That same year, a bus carrying the local softball team crashed in Camden Crossing and took three girls’ lives. One survived, but two others—Peyton Boulder and my sister, Ruth—disappeared. We still don’t know what happened to them.”
“I read about the cases,” Sheriff Blair said. “I made it a point to familiarize myself with all the old files when I took office. Besides, I grew up around here and remembered the town’s devastation when the girls went missing.” She pulled a file from the drawer in the desk, opened it and placed it so he could read the contents.
“This is what I have so far on the missing girls from our area.”
“Avery Portland was fifteen, popular, a cheerleader. Parents dropped her off for a school dance. According to her boyfriend, she was acting funny all night, picked a fight and she went outside. He went after her, but she was gone.”
“Boyfriend’s story check out?”
Sheriff Blair shrugged. “He appeared to be devastated. His buddies all gave him an alibi, too.”
“How about girl two?”
“Melanie Hoit, sixteen. On the dance team at school. Disappeared from the mall in Amarillo where she was supposed to meet her girlfriends on a Saturday night. Security cameras turned up nothing. According to parents, everyone loved her.”
“Were either of the girls ever in trouble?”
She shook her head. “According to the families, no. Neither had any kind of arrest record. Both excelled in school. No problems with authority, although Avery’s father had abandoned the family eight months before, and her friends said she was angry and had been to see the counselor about the divorce.”
“Were she and Melanie friends?”
She nodded. “Since fifth grade.”
Like Ruth and Peyton, except they’d disappeared without a trace.
“No ransom calls. No phone calls from the girls.” Sheriff Blair rubbed her hand over her forehead. “No leads.”
Chaz spread the notes from the Camden case on the desk. “Sounds similar to our missing girls.”
“Except for the bus crash,” Sheriff Blair pointed out. “Avery and Melanie disappeared at different times.”
Chaz chewed the inside of his cheek. “True. One theory is that the kidnapper was obsessed with one of them. But when the crash occurred, he had to take both.”
Sheriff Blair narrowed her eyes. “But he left that other girl, Peyton’s sister.”
“Yes, Tawny-Lynn Boulder,” Chaz said, his chest clenching. “That’s true, but she had a broken leg and was unconscious.”
“So how did he make two girls go with him? Were there signs of a struggle?”
Chaz grimaced. “It was hard to sort out what happened.” He slid a photo of the crash site and tapped it. “There were skid marks from the bus and another vehicle, although the sheriff and crime team never tracked down the vehicle.”
“What about blood from a fight? If the girls struggled with the abductor, there might have been evidence.”
“The scene was a mess,” Chaz said. “Blood and glass were on the rocks, but the fire destroyed most evidence. And it rained that day so the rain washed away the rest.”
“I suppose if the kidnapper had a gun he could have forced the girls to go with him. But if Tawny-Lynn was injured, how did her sister and yours escape the bus unharmed?”
Chaz’s chest tightened. “They could have been hurt, which would have made it harder for them to fight back,” he said. “No one knows.”
“What about the girl who survived? It says in the file that she might have witnessed the abduction.”
Chaz nodded. “She sustained a head injury, had amnesia and can’t remember details of that day.”
Still, someone wanted her dead. Which confirmed in his mind that she had seen foul play.
Chaz removed three other photos and showed them to her. “These three young women have also gone missing during the past five years from various counties in Texas.”
“You think they’re connected?”
“I’m not sure, but maybe. The M.O. is the same. The victims are around the same age. All went missing in the spring, and vanished without a trace.”
“Spring?” Sheriff Blair scowled. “The time of year might be significant.”
Chaz nodded. What worried him most was that they had no leads. “If the same perpetrator kidnapped all these girls, that means another girl might go missing any day now.”
* * *
, her nerves sizzling with tension.
Barry Dothan had seemed harmless when she’d known him years ago. He was almost childlike in his speech patterns, and walked and behaved like an oversize kid. He’d gained weight and had a pudgy look about him now, his jowls were sagging, his dirty blond hair wiry and choppy as if he’d cut it himself.
But he was hiding and taking pictures of her. And the police had found pictures of Peyton and Ruth as well as other teenagers on the bulletin board in his room.
Was he going to add hers to that wall?
She slowly moved toward the woods, determined to talk to him. But panic flashed in his eyes when he saw her, and he started to run.
“Wait,” Tawny-Lynn called.
He planted one hand on a tree, his eyes darting in all directions. She glanced around for a car, then noticed a bicycle tucked against a copse of trees.
“I...didn’t do anything wrong.”
Tawny-Lynn forced her expression to remain calm. “I just want to talk to you.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he mumbled again. “I just like to take pictures.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “But why are you here?”
He shook his head from side to side, back and forth in a frantic motion, his eyes widening in a crazed expression. “I didn’t do anything!”
Then he jumped on his bike and raced back through the woods, weaving and swaying as if she’d frightened him.
Her heart raced as she jumped in the truck and fired up the engine. Barry might have been obsessed with her sister or Ruth, but would he have hurt them?
Maybe he’d tried to help them that day, but one of them had fought him and things had gone ugly....