Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
But Chaz was right. He didn’t have the intellect or enough emotional control to have hidden a body or kept quiet all these years.
Still, the way he protested so vehemently made her wonder if he knew something that he hadn’t told. Maybe he’d been here that day and seen something?
The truck chugged around the winding road, her mind trying to picture the blank face in her memory. Could it have been Barry who’d pulled her from the fire?
She turned down the drive to White Forks, angry that her mind refused to give her the answers she needed.
The answer everyone in town needed, especially the Camdens and the parents of the deceased girls.
She threw the truck into Park, retrieved two of the grocery bags and started toward the porch steps. But she froze at the bottom, her breath catching.
A dead animal, maybe a deer, had been slaughtered and left on the porch. A bloody trail was smeared on the steps.
And another message had been written in blood on the door.
this will be you next.
Chaz had just left Sunset Mesa when his phone rang. His stomach knotted when he saw Tawny-Lynn’s number on the screen.
“Chaz, I hate to bother you—”
“Someone left a slaughtered deer on my front porch with another message.”
Chaz silently released a string of expletives. “Don’t touch anything and don’t go inside.”
“I haven’t. I’m sitting in the truck.”
“Good. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He jogged outside, jumped in his squad car, flipped on the siren and sped away from Sunset Mesa, his phone glued to his ear. “Did you see anyone when you pulled up?”
“No,” Tawny-Lynn said.
“Has Jimmy been there to redo the locks?”
“Not yet. I’m expecting him any minute.”
“Okay, just keep your eyes peeled. If you see anyone, get out of there. Don’t try to confront them on your own.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t have a death wish,” she said.
But someone else had one for her. He turned onto the main highway leading back to Camden Crossing. “I just came from talking to the sheriff in Sunset Mesa about the two girls that went missing from there the year before Ruth and Peyton did.”
“Didn’t Sheriff Simmons already cover that?”
“Yeah, but it turns out the sheriff in Sunset Mesa was suffering from dementia. I thought fresh eyes might see something they missed back then.”
“No. But I’m not giving up.” A thick silence fell between them. “Tawny-Lynn, are you okay?”
“Yes,” she said, although she didn’t sound okay.
How could she be with threats being made against her? “Did something else happen?”
A weary sigh echoed back. “I stopped by the site of the bus crash.”
A heartbeat passed. He didn’t know what to say. Everyone had pushed her to remember, yet that day had been traumatic and painful for her. “And?”
“I remember someone slamming into the bus and us careening over the side of the ridge,” she said. “But I didn’t see who hit us. And...then I remember being unconscious and waking up and someone was pulling me from the wreckage. Smoke was billowing around me, and the heat...it was so hot and I was scared.”
Chaz’s heart was pounding, but he didn’t push. He simply waited to see if she would elaborate.
“But that’s it,” she whispered. “The face is...blank.”
He slowed as he rounded a curve, then passed the high school.
“Maybe you didn’t actually see the face,” he suggested.
“I...don’t know.” Her voice cracked. “I feel like I did, but there’s something in my way, blocking out the image.”
“You were injured,” Chaz said softly. It was about time someone cut her some slack.
Another tense minute passed, while he veered down the driveway to the ranch.
She cleared her throat. “There’s something else.”
He scrubbed a hand through his hair as the farmhouse slipped into view. “What?”
“Today when I was at the site. I felt like someone was watching me, and when I looked over my shoulder, Barry Dothan was there, hiding in the woods, taking pictures of me.”
Fear slammed into Chaz. “Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Tawny-Lynn said. “But it was spooky. I tried to talk to him, but he kept shouting that he hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“Did he say what he meant by that?”
“No. But why would he go back there if he wasn’t there when the accident happened?”
“Good question. I’ll have a talk with him and his mother. Maybe he did something to the girls accidentally. If not, maybe he knows something.”
Chaz raced up beside the truck and parked, then jumped out, his gun drawn. Tawny-Lynn opened the truck door and climbed down, her face pale.
He took one look at the bloody deer carcass and message on her porch and fury railed inside him.
“I have to do something to stop this,” she whispered.
“It’s not your fault,” Chaz said between gritted teeth.
Then he did what he’d wanted to do when he saw the very first message. He pulled her up against him and wrapped his arms around her.
* * *
into Chaz, her body trembling. Ever since that awful accident, she’d felt alone.
Persecuted, confused, terrified and guilt-ridden.
She’d learned to deal with it and to stand on her own, but for just a moment, she allowed herself the comfort of Chaz’s arms.
He stroked her back, rubbing slow circles between her shoulder blades. “You don’t deserve this, Tawny-Lynn, and I’m going to make sure whoever did this doesn’t hurt you.”
Tension slowly seeped from her tightly wound muscles. She felt the warmth of his arms encircling her, the soft rise and fall of his chest against her cheek, the whisper of his breath against her ear.
Finally she raised her gaze to his. “I’m sorry, Chaz. I guess that dead animal shook me up more than I thought.”
His eyes darkened with concern and other emotions that made her want to reach up and touch his cheek.
Kiss his lips.
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I promise you I’ll put a stop to this cruelty.”
She pulled away and struggled for bravado. “Whoever did it probably just wants to scare me off.”
“Maybe so. But I won’t tolerate this kind of crap while I’m in office. When I find the bastard who did it, he’ll pay.”
She folded her arms, missing his contact already. The sound of an engine rumbled, and a black pickup rolled up.
“There’s Jimmy now.” Chaz flicked a hand up to greet the locksmith as he emerged from his truck. “We have a problem here,” he said, indicating the carcass on the front porch. “Let me check the house out first, then you can get to work.”
Chaz gestured to Tawny-Lynn. “Stay here with her until I return.” Then he raced up the steps to the house.
Tawny-Lynn hissed a breath, praying the person who’d threatened her wasn’t inside.
Jimmy shuffled back and forth. “Sorry you’re having trouble, ma’am.”
Tawny-Lynn forced a polite smile. Jimmy was probably in his thirties and wore jeans and a khaki shirt with the name
embroidered on the pocket. His smile was flirty like it had been at the diner although a devilish gleam lit his eyes.
But Chaz must trust him or he wouldn’t have called him.
“You didn’t grow up in Camden Crossing, did you?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” Jimmy said. “I came from Sunset Mesa. But I moved here a couple years ago.”
Chaz returned to the doorway and waved that the house was safe. “I’ll clean up this mess, Jimmy, and you can start with the locks.”
Jimmy nodded, grabbed a kit from his car and headed up to the porch. “You want a security system?”
Tawny-Lynn frowned and shook her head. “I don’t think installing a security system is worth the investment.”
Chaz didn’t look convinced. “Put dead bolts on all the doors and check the window locks. Then install a hidden camera and aim it at this porch. If this guy shows up again, we’ll nail him.”
Tawny-Lynn waited until Chaz hauled the bloody deer carcass off the porch. He carried it into the woods, and she retrieved the groceries, sidestepping the blood on the porch floor as she carried them inside.
She quickly sorted and stored the items, glad she’d cleaned the pantry of the outdated canned and boxed goods. Chaz came in for more bleach and a bucket of water and sponge.
Jimmy started in the kitchen with the back door, giving Chaz time to clean the front porch. She brewed a pot of coffee and left it for the men, then started to clean the den.
But the memory of Barry Dothan at the crash site made her rethink her plan. Instead of starting downstairs, she’d start in Peyton’s room.
She and Ruth had been whispering about boys those last few weeks, sharing secrets and giggling and talking in hushed voices. Every time she’d tried to join the conversation, her sister had shut her out.
What if her boyfriend knew something?
Maybe there was some clue in Peyton’s room as to the secret they’d been sharing.
* * *
the deer and bloody message before he hauled the carcass into the woods. Then he searched for fingerprints on the door, but other than the blood, the door had been wiped clean. There were also no footprints in the blood so the perpetrator had sidestepped the bloody trail he’d left on the steps.
Someone knew what he was doing and was covering his tracks.
There were a dozen or so people who didn’t want Tawny-Lynn here.
Because they didn’t want her to remember what happened that day? To remember the face she said was blank?
Because he or she had done something to Ruth and Peyton?
That thought made his gut churn, and he punched the number for the crime lab and asked to speak to Lieutenant Willis Ludlow, the CSI chief he’d met at a police seminar.
“What can I do for you?” Lieutenant Ludlow asked.
Chaz quickly explained the circumstances. “My deputy couriered over some blood samples I took at the crime scene.”
“Yeah, hang on a minute, and I’ll pull the results.”
Paper rustled, then a tapping sound followed, and he realized Ludlow was on his computer. Seconds later, he returned. “Okay, the blood sample on the mirror came from an animal. It was dried and had been there a couple of days.”
Two days—the same day Tawny-Lynn’s father had died. “Deer blood?”
“No, a rabbit.”
“And the blood on the wall?”
“That one was from a deer. Maybe your guy is a hunter.”
“Possibly.” Or anyone with enough imagination to kill a deer and use its blood to frighten Tawny-Lynn.
His mind ticked away possibilities. It had to be someone fairly strong to have dragged the deer up onto the porch. Someone who didn’t have a weak stomach.
Most likely a man.
“How about the prints?”
“The only ones we found were Boulder’s and his daughter’s.”
Chaz was frustrated but not surprised.
“Sorry, I know that’s not much help.”
“This perp is covering his tracks,” Chaz said. “But I’ll catch him sooner or later.” He just hoped it was before the creep tried to make good on his threats and hurt Tawny-Lynn.
His conversation with his father echoed in his head, and he went to tell Tawny-Lynn that he was leaving.
He needed to have a talk with his old man.
But there was no reason his father wouldn’t want Tawny-Lynn to remember. In fact, he’d driven the theory that she’d been hiding something and demanded she stop faking the amnesia.
But his father didn’t want her here, and he had a hunting rifle. Deer hunting was his sport.
Then he’d talk to Barry Dothan about those pictures and see if he was stalking Tawny-Lynn.
* * *
as she stepped into her sister’s old room. It was as if she’d walked back in time.
Peyton had always been his favorite because she was more of a girly-girl, and her room reflected her personality.
Though she and her father had argued those last few months. Mostly about the length of Peyton’s skirts, her makeup and boyfriends. Peyton had been hormonal, determined to date when their father told her no, and had snuck out several times late at night.
Her father had also found her slipping alcohol from the house.
Twice, she’d come in so drunk she could barely walk, and Tawny-Lynn had covered for her. She and her sister had argued the next day, and Tawny-Lynn had begged her sister to stop acting out.
Peyton had yelled that she was almost eighteen, that she was in love, and that she’d do whatever she pleased.
A couple of weeks later, she’d run in crying one night, and when Tawny-Lynn asked what was wrong, Peyton refused to talk.
She’d figured it was boyfriend trouble, but then she’d heard Peyton and Ruth arguing over the phone later, and thought the two of them had had a falling out. But Peyton had never shared what had upset her or what happened between her and Ruth.
She slid into the desk chair in the corner and searched the drawers, finding assorted junk—spiral notebooks with old algebra problems, a science notebook, movie ticket stubs, old hair bows, ribbons and report cards. Peyton had been an average student, but popular because of her good looks.
She checked the other drawers and found a few photographs of her sister and Ruth. The two of them at pep rallies, Peyton playing midfield, Peyton in her homecoming dress, Ruth in hers on the homecoming court.
Her finger brushed the edge of something, and she discovered another photo jammed between two school albums.
Her heart squeezed as she stared at the picture. It was Peyton, her and their mother. Peyton had probably been two and she was an infant. Her mother was smiling as she cradled her in her arms.
Tawny-Lynn wiped at a tear and placed the photo in her pocket to keep. If her mother had lived, how would their lives been different? Would her father have stayed away from the bottle?
Satisfied the desk held no clues, she checked the nightstand by the bed. Her sister had kept a diary, but Tawny-Lynn searched for it after Peyton disappeared and never found it. It could have been in her gym bag in the bus and burned in the fire.
Another lead lost.
In the drawer beneath an old compact and brush, she found a box of condoms. She opened the box of twelve and noted they were half gone. Peyton had always had boyfriends, but she hadn’t known her sister was sexually active.
Who had she been sleeping with?
Hoping to find some clue about the mysterious boyfriend or the missing diary, she rummaged through the closet, searching the shoeboxes on the floor but found nothing but sneakers, sandals, flip-flops and a pair of black dress shoes.
Deciding it was time to throw out her sister’s clothes—she could donate them to the church along with her father’s belongings—she gathered several garbage bags and began pulling sweaters, shirts and jeans off the shelves and rack and dumping them inside.
She spotted Peyton’s letter jacket and pulled it off the hanger, but a folded scrap of paper fell from the pocket. She opened the note and read it.