Authors: Trish Milburn
Published by Trish Milburn at Amazon.com
Copyright 2011 Trish Milburn
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Shelly Myers turned onto the gravel drive leading to her cabin, her nerves hanging by the thinnest of strings.
The sight of her father, the man who’d been so strong when she’d been weak, hooked up to half a dozen tubes in a hospital bed wouldn’t leave her. During her entire three-hour drive back to the mountains from Nashville, she’d kept hearing the beep, beep, beep of the monitors and smelling the antiseptic scent of the hospital. Kept seeing her mother’s face lined with worry and her strong older brother fighting back tears. Kept cursing fate that she’d been forced to walk back into a hospital again. To relive the day when her husband had died while she could do nothing but watch.
She stopped and closed her eyes, trying to erase the negative thoughts. This was different. Her father wasn’t Troy. He wasn’t a cop and hadn’t been shot by a drug dealer. And he wasn’t going to die. Ralph Wynn was strong, fit, a powerful presence. He’d taken shrapnel in the leg in Vietnam and still carried a more seriously wounded soldier to safety. If he could beat those odds, he’d beat a heart attack.
With a deep breath, she opened her eyes and continued down the familiar lane. She didn’t have time to wallow in worries. She had a million things to do to get her family’s cabin rental and river tubing business ready for the upcoming summer season and two fewer people to do it with. Maybe the long hours between now and the upcoming Memorial Day weekend would help keep her mind occupied so she didn’t spend every waking moment worrying about her father and feeling guilty because she wasn’t at his side.
When she reached the clearing where the office and cabins stood, she pulled into an empty parking space. Though exhausted enough to collapse, she forced herself toward the office. Chris, her summer employee, had been holding down the fort along with his girlfriend, Anna, for two days and deserved a break.
Another car came around the bend into the clearing, probably one of the guests arriving early for the weekend. They had a couple and a family of four arriving today if she remembered correctly. She continued toward the office to stow her things and get to work.
Even though early summer had descended on the Smoky Mountains like a warm, moist blanket, a shiver scurried down her spine. That voice. It couldn’t be.
"Shelly? Is that you?" the man repeated.
She turned from her spot on the office steps and realized the new arrival wasn’t a guest after all. "Reed?"
Other than the dark circles under his eyes and tight expression pulling at his facial muscles that made him look as tired as she felt, Reed Tanner hadn’t changed. Same tall, athletic frame. Same dark, short-cropped hair. Same beautiful hazel eyes. And Troy’s former partner was probably still breaking hearts far and wide across North Texas.
"Yeah." His deep voice sounded strained, as if it pained him to see her.
Shelly blinked hard against the lightness in her head. She sank back against the porch support.
Breathe deep. She lifted her palm to her forehead. She hadn’t talked to Reed in more than a year, not since the day their testimony had helped send Eddie Victor to prison for Troy’s murder. The memory of her blood-spattered wedding dress flashed in her mind, causing her stomach to roll.
He started toward her. "Are you okay?"
She forced herself to take slow, fortifying breaths. She’d come too far for the face of an old friend to send her sliding backward again. "Just surprised. I certainly didn’t expect to see you today."
Or ever. But then, that was her fault and should have been remedied long ago.
"We need to talk." The seriousness of his expression and the steeliness of his voice warned her there was more to his visit than the renewing of old friendships.
He hesitated, as if searching for the perfect words. "Eddie Victor was released from prison this morning."
An invisible wrecking ball slammed into her stomach. Her voice sounded far away when she spoke. "What do you mean he was released? That’s impossible. He’s on death row at Huntsville. People don’t leave there alive."
His face hardened, as if it was all he could do to keep from exploding. "His conviction was overturned."
Her skin chilled despite the warmth of the late May sun. "Oh, my God. This can’t be happening. How could they let him out? He killed a police officer. A jury convicted him of murder. Why is he out?" Her voice grew louder and more desperate for a reasonable answer where there wasn’t likely to be one. Was she having a nightmare? That was the only answer that made sense.
"Shelly, are you okay?"
She looked over to where Chris stood just inside the screen door.
"I’m fine, Chris."
He didn’t look convinced and stared at Reed with suspicion.
"Really, I’m okay. Just had a rough day, that’s all."
Chris eyed Reed a few moments longer, poised to jump to her defense if necessary. Finally, he returned his gaze to her. "How’s your dad?"
"About the same."
"Is something wrong with your dad?" Reed asked.
Had it only been mere minutes ago when she’d thought things were as bad as they could get? Why had she tempted fate? "He had a massive heart attack two days ago. They life flighted him to Knoxville, then on to Nashville to a better heart hospital."
"Oh, Shelly, I had no idea."
She waved away his pity, didn’t want it. What she needed was strength and for fate to stop throwing things at her like she was the focus of a cosmic game of dodgeball.
The phone rang inside the office, but Chris didn’t move.
"Go on," Shelly said. "It’s okay."
Chris hesitated for another ring. "I’ll be right here if you need me." With a final look at Reed, he retreated to answer the phone as it rang for the fifth time.
Shelly locked her gaze with Reed’s. "How did this happen? Have the prison officials lost their minds?"
"I’ll explain everything, but now we need to leave."
"Yes, you’re not safe here."
Why did nothing in her world make sense anymore? "What are you talking about?"
"Because Eddie’s headed here."
The fog swirling in her brain froze instantly, coating her with a chill that sank soul deep. Her skin crawled when she remembered the beastial hatred on Eddie Victor’s face as he stared at her on the witness stand. His dark, granite eyes had held something else that sickened her even more—pride, satisfaction, even a warped glee that he’d taken out a cop on what should have been the happiest day of his life. An arrogant confidence that he’d get away with it.
"Oh, God," she muttered again.
"I’m sorry to spring it on you like this. I tried calling last night before I left, but I just got the answering machine. I guess you were in Nashville."
She had to move, to get out of the sun, to try to wrap her mind around what Reed was saying. He followed as she headed for a picnic table along the ridge overlooking the river. She breathed in the fresh scent of pine, hoping it would calm her, and sank onto the bench.
"Shelly, we don’t have time for this. We need to move you to a safer location."
She held up her hand and shook her head. "Tell me how this happened."
With a sigh of frustration, he sat onto the bench opposite her. The knuckles on his clasped fingers whitened. "Do you remember Dale Christiansen and Brady Frazier?"
"Yeah." Images of the two detectives, one tall and thin, the other tall and not so thin, came back as if she’d seen them the day before. Both had played on the police basketball team with Troy and Reed.
"According to what I was told yesterday, they wanted to make sure Eddie went away and never saw the light of day again."
"Everyone felt that way." She’d wanted to kill the man herself for a time until she’d admitted those feelings did nothing but eat her up inside, preventing her from the necessary healing. And the fact that it wouldn’t bring Troy back.
"Yes, but not everyone planted a gun and coerced the ballistics expert to not be totally forthcoming on the witness stand."
Shelly gasped. "Oh no, they didn’t?"
"They did. Chief told me one of those college criminal justice classes got to looking at the evidence presented in all the cases involving Texas death row inmates. They discovered no one had asked the ballistics expert if the grooves on the gun presented into evidence matched the grooves on the bullet that killed Troy."
Shelly shook her head. "I don’t understand. I remember the lawyers talking about how that was the gun that killed him."
"John Fremont, the ballistics guy, testified it was the same kind of gun, not the gun."
"How? How did we go through an entire trial without this coming out?"
"I don’t know. The prosecution screwed up."
"But why does it even matter? I saw Eddie. I testified to that."
A sad, defeated look came over Reed’s face. "They’re not going to pursue it, Shelly. They said that Eddie was so far away, that you were distraught and could have been mistaken."
"What?" She screeched the question.
"I don’t like this any more than you do, but Eddie’s free. They’re going to serve up Dale and Brady as sacrificial lambs and hope the story goes away."
"Eddie Victor killed a man, an officer, in cold blood and the police are worried about their reputations." Shelly shot to her feet and stalked toward the ridge, her temper boiling. "Why?" she cried into the trees.
Reed approached but didn’t touch her. If he did, she might shatter from the cracks snaking throughout her. Tears welled in her eyes—for her sick father, who’d helped her get through the grief after Troy’s death. For Brady and Dale, who’d loved Troy like a brother and thrown common sense and honor to the wind to try to avenge him. For Troy, whose justice had been ripped away by those who’d guarded his back on more than one occasion. And for herself and Reed, who were now forced to relive the hell.
Shelly swiped at the tears and summoned a reserve of strength she would have sworn she didn’t have five minutes ago. She would not let Eddie Victor do this, to rob her of all the good things she’d been able to recapture since her return to her beloved mountains. She’d be damned if she’d allow herself to cower in fear and revert into the pitiful creature she’d been when her parents had brought her home.
She spun toward Reed. "Can’t we fight this?"
"Trust me. The powers that be know how I feel about their decisions. There’s a fist-sized hole in my office wall to prove it."
"I can’t believe it." She shook her head. "This can’t be happening. Maybe if I call someone, tell them again what I saw."
Reed stepped forward and gripped her shoulders. "Shelly, there’s nothing we can do to put him where he belongs. But he won’t get what he’s after. That’s why we need to get you packed and get out of here. And since your family’s in Nashville, that’s the logical place to go since Eddie will come here."
"I just got back. I can’t leave Chris alone to run things again."
"You’ll have to close until we’re sure you’re going to be safe."
"Close? This is our busiest time of year."
Reed glanced at the line of cabins, only two of which were occupied.
"The busy season starts this weekend. We’ll be running our legs off until Labor Day. We have people with reservations weeks in advance. If we close now, they’ll go somewhere else and may never come back here. We have a narrow window in which to make the majority of our year’s income. Missing even a few days is too big a hit. Not to mention that with Dad’s medical bills we need the money now more than ever."
"That’s what health insurance is for."
"Insurance covers eighty percent max. Do you have any idea how much it costs to stay in a hospital? To have test after test? I won’t have my parents worried about that. They have enough to worry about." Shelly forced herself to calm down. "My parents have been there for me through some awful times, Reed. I can’t repay them by bankrupting the business they’ve spent their entire lives building. It’s my turn to help them."
"You think they’d rather come home to find their only daughter dead?"
She jerked as if she’d been struck. It took a moment for her to find her voice again. "They won’t."
"You don’t know that."
"What makes you so sure Eddie’s going to come here?"
"Because he told me so the day they put him on death row."
"You don’t think that was just his anger talking? How much sense does it make for him to risk going back now that he knows what it’s like? Why wouldn’t he go to a beach and live a squeaky clean life for the rest of his days?"