Read Gone From Me: Hearts of the South, Book 10 Online

Authors: Linda Winfree

Tags: #Cops;small town;suspense;contemporary;marriage in trouble;mystery;second chances

Gone From Me: Hearts of the South, Book 10

BOOK: Gone From Me: Hearts of the South, Book 10
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Their life was a fairy tale—until it all came tumbling down.

Hearts of the South
, Book 10

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Amy Bennett isn’t sure when her own Prince Charming went AWOL from their marriage, but she’s certain of one thing. She wants him back. She and Rob had it all: law-enforcement careers they loved and each other. Yet somehow he’s wound up sleeping on the couch and emotionally beyond her reach.

Rob is trying to put the pieces back together, but battling his own demons while starting over in a small-town sheriff’s department is pushing him—and his marriage—to the breaking point.

His very first missing person’s case threatens to end anything but happily ever after for the families involved. Then a young man goes missing too, and the pressure has Rob reaching for the nearest lifeline. The one that’s dangling by the barest of threads—his wife.

And though Amy’s grip is strong, her love may not be enough to keep Rob from slipping away.

Warning: Contains a husband who’s holding too much in, and a wife who’ll do anything to get him to let go, even meet him halfway on their last piece of common ground—in bed. Also: cop bonding between cops who talk like cops.

Gone From Me

Linda Winfree

Dedication

With a grateful heart, for all that has been restored to me.

Taped Transcript of Michael Smithwick

Interview Conducted by Investigator Robert H. Bennett

Case Number 08-10391895

June 14, 20—

MS—Michael Smithwick

RB—Investigator Robert Bennett

TF—Deputy Troy Lee Farr

RB: Okay, so the date today is June 14 and right now the exact time is 1342 hours. I’m Investigator Robert Bennett with the Chandler County Sheriff’s Office. Present with me are Deputy Troy Lee Farr with the Chandler County Sheriff’s Office and Michael Smithwick. This is in reference to case number 08-10391895. Mr. Smithwick, you live at 718 Bowles Road, is that correct?

MS: Yes.

RB: And you’ve come in today at our request, but of your free will, right? That is, we’ve closed the door for privacy’s sake, but you understand you’re free to go at any time?

MS: Yeah.

RB: All right, so…did you want anything before we started? Water, coffee?

MS: I’m good. Um, thanks though.

RB: So, Mr. Smithwick, you’re acquainted with a Zechariah Dale Jenkins Jr.?

MS: Yeah.

RB: And what is the nature of your acquaintance?

MS: What?

RB: Your acquaintance, um, your relationship…are you relatives, friends—

MS: We were cousins. I mean, friends too. We went to school together, but his mama and my stepmother were cousins, so I guess that makes us, um, third cousins by marriage.

TF: Everybody in this town is related.

RB: {Chuckles} I’m beginning to see that. So you and Mr. Jenkins—

MS: Zeke.

RB: Right, Zeke. So you and Zeke, you’re cousins by marriage, but you’re friends too.

MS: Yeah. Right.

RB: Can you tell me when was the last time you had contact, um, talked to Zeke?

MS: Yeah. About two, maybe three, days before it happened.

RB: It? When you say “it”, what exactly do you mean?

MS: I mean, the day he went missing.

Chapter One

Numb. All he felt was numb, which was crazy because he should be hurt, jealous, enraged. Rob’s friend—make that
former
friend—had one hand buried in Amy’s hair, an arm about her waist, and his lips hovered over, not quite touching, Amy’s mouth. Jake was about to kiss Rob’s wife, and all the emotion Rob could dredge up was irritation at not being able to feel.

The lack of feeling bugged the hell out of him, as it had for weeks now.

A fat drop of rain splattered on his shoulder, and the chilly spray across his neck broke him free from the paralyzing trance. He stepped off the curb into the parking lot as Amy wedged her palms against Jake’s shoulders and shoved hard.

“What are you doing?” Amy, at least, was angry, fury dripping off each syllable. She brought her fisted hands up and took a firm step back. She lifted her chin, thick brown hair sliding over her shoulders in a glossy fall.

“Amy, baby, wait.” Jake reached for her, and she knocked his hand aside. “We need to talk—”

“You’re insane.” Another step backward, but with her body shifted so she could spin if he lunged at her. Rob had witnessed that stance often enough when they’d been rookie agents, training together. Capable and strong in more ways than one, Amy could handle herself.

The door behind him swung open, a group of laughing diners spilling from China Garden. Peals of merriment blended with the splashing fountain and the plopping of raindrops on asphalt. Amy and Jake both glanced toward the newcomers. Rob read their expressions as they registered his presence—Jake’s smug triumph, Amy’s horror.

Rob strode forward, feet automatically carrying him toward the train wreck that had been one of his closest friendships since college. Jake had always been a little of a self-centered whiner, but they’d been buddies, sharing similar interests. Hell, how had Rob missed that one of those interests had been Amy?

Maybe he was further gone that he’d thought.

“Rob…” Amy’s voice held a nervous tremor that probably only someone who knew her the way he did could hear. She was actually scared, which made no sense. He’d never hurt her. Jake appeared frightened as well, a hint of fear warring with the challenge in his gaze.

He cataloged that away and stopped next to Amy. Hands tucked in his pockets, he rocked back on his heels. “Ready to go home?”

Surprise flared on both their faces. Yeah, his reserve was probably the epitome of anticlimactic. Amy’s shock quickly morphed into eager relief. She pulled at his arm and slid her hand into his, her fingers as chilly as the rain falling in earnest now, plastering their clothes to skin. “Yes.”

“Okay.” He didn’t tighten his own fingers around hers, but steered her toward his truck. He yanked open the passenger door and helped her inside before jogging around to the driver’s side. Water dripped from his collar, his shirt clinging like a clammy hand. In the passenger seat, Amy twisted the hem of her own soaked top. The Ford’s cloth interior would be toast after this.

He didn’t care about that either, even though his dad would spin in his grave over Rob letting this happen to his beloved pickup.

“Rob? I don’t know what you saw, but it isn’t what you think.” Amy’s quiet voice barely cleared the noise of the engine and rain. He shifted into drive and pulled into the steady stream of traffic on Ashley Street. Why the hell had they agreed to come all the way over here for dinner? At least an hour’s drive back to Chandler County, in the rain, with this conversation hanging over them.

Oh, yeah. Because it would be fun to meet up with Jake and their old college friends at China Garden, to relive the good times and celebrate his new job at the same time.

What a crock.

“What do I think, Amy?” He turned right to skirt around Valdosta State. He could take the back roads through Moultrie, cut at least ten minutes off the drive.

“I… He was trying to kiss me, not the other way around.”

“I never said I thought that.” He rested his wrist on the wheel, waiting for the red light to turn green. Traffic bunched around them, leaving him with a sensation of being cornered and trapped. He rolled his shoulders. “I don’t know what led up to it, but it was pretty plain you weren’t looking for what he was offering.”


Nothing
led up to it.” Distress and annoyance lingered in her voice. “One minute he was asking about us moving to Chandler County, the next he…he grabbed me.”

He nodded. The light flared green, and he pressed the accelerator.

“Aren’t you angry?”

“With you?”

“With Jake.”

He considered that while he navigated the bottleneck near the interstate exit. Traffic eased around them as he crossed over I-75 and headed out of town on the two-lane blacktop. “I don’t know what I am.”

“Wait a minute. You walk out of that restaurant, find Jake with his hands on me, and you don’t know what you are?”

Now she was mad at him, too. Great. “Amy, I’m just…I’m tired, okay? It’s been a long week, and you know I haven’t been sleeping—”

“How would I know that? You don’t sleep in our bed. We don’t talk unless it’s about chores or bills or what’s for supper or what’s still packed in what box. I don’t know how you feel about going to work at Chandler or the holdup with our adoption application or anything.” From the corner of his eye, he saw her run her fingernail along the windowsill. “We don’t even go to church or pray together.”

Mad at him and hurt. Disappointed, maybe, because he wasn’t the husband she’d bargained for, wasn’t Prince Charming who could give her everything she wanted. Hell, he couldn’t give her anything she wanted. Hadn’t the last few months proved that?

His headlights illuminated dark fields as they flashed by. The wipers swished rain from the windshield. Next to him, Amy expelled a shaky breath. “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”

“Maybe.” The lie niggled at him, the first real thing beyond irritation he’d felt all night. He gripped the wheel tighter. “Yeah.”

“What do we do now?”

Was she actually looking to him for direction? Surely not. He couldn’t give what he didn’t have. His knuckles ached under the pressure of holding the wheel. “I don’t know.”

* * * * *

The new Chandler County Sheriff’s Department jail facility gleamed in the early-morning sunlight. Razor wire shone, glass reflected golden light, white paint sparkled. Rob slanted his F-150 into a staff parking spot and killed the engine. On a deep breath, he smothered the nerves jumping in his gut. He wanted to put the jitters down as old-fashioned excitement; his ingrained honesty whispered that it had more to do with anxiety linked to fear of failure.

He’d spent the night before like he’d spent countless others in the past six months, lying awake on the couch and staring at the ceiling. The canned laughter of a sitcom had done little to interrupt the tangled snarling of his thoughts. What had he really seen? Nothing, as Amy claimed? Or something? Had he reacted correctly? Or maybe he should have kicked Jake’s ass in that parking lot, although physical blows never solved anything.

What about them, him and Amy? He didn’t know how to begin fixing the mess they were in. The more he thought, the tenser he got, and even this morning, the stress slithered and coiled in him, seeking an outlet. He clenched and unclenched his hands in a slow rhythm that did little to ease the nerves and the questions. He had to get it together, though.

His marriage looked to be royally screwed up.

He didn’t want that to be his career too.

He shoved the door open. Under his duty shoes, asphalt crunched. Straightening his shoulders, he slammed the door, hit the alarm button on his key fob and headed for the challenge of getting through the first day on this new job like a reasonably normal human being. Inside, the heavy odor of fresh wax hung over the lobby. Behind a glass partition, a young man in uniform sorted papers into neat stacks. He looked up and graced Rob with an earnest smile. “May I help you?”

Rob reached for his wallet and displayed his state-issued peace officer’s identification. “I’m Rob Bennett, the new—”

“Investigator. Right.” With a sharp nod toward the heavy metal door at Rob’s right, the clerk reached below the desk. A sharp buzz preceded the loud clang of a remote lock releasing.

Rob grabbed the handle and tugged the door open. A long, empty hallway stretched before him, an expanse of institutional beige paint above equally institutional dark-brown carpet. An unexpected spurt of humor made him smile.

Did the person who’d chosen the colors realize they echoed the standard colors of a Georgia deputy’s uniform?

The low buzz of voices emanated from offices along the way. He paused at the entrance to the multipurpose area, which served as both squad and meeting room. A few deputies and jail personnel gathered, sharing information and trading shift stories in quiet tones. The sense of being out of his element hovered around him.

“Hey, Rob.” A hand clapped his shoulder, and he nearly jumped at the greeting. He met Investigator Tick Calvert’s watchful brown gaze.

“Sir.” He nodded. Maybe he didn’t look as uncertain as he felt.

“You’re early.” A grin quirked at the corners of Calvert’s mouth. “I like that.”

He couldn’t very well tell the older man he hadn’t slept. He shrugged. “I’m an early riser.”

“Coffee?” Mug in hand, Calvert gestured toward the counter running along one side of the room.

A major dose of caffeine might not be a bad idea. “Sure.”

Calvert topped off his own cup, then filled a foam one for Rob. The lead investigator propped against the counter and cast a look over the men beginning to disperse as third shift headed home and first shift assumed duty posts.

Rob took a cautious sip of the dark brew, bitterness stinging his raw throat. “So what’s the agenda for today?”

“First day of patrol training.”

“Patrol.”

“Yeah.” Calvert cleared his throat. “According to Will Botine at the GBI, your investigative skills are top-notch, but let’s face it, you don’t have any road experience. With the budget cuts the whole state is experiencing, we can’t afford to have any officers who can’t pull double duty. We’re cross-training deputies as dispatchers, pulling some dispatchers who seem to have a propensity for road work and doing likewise. That means our investigators need to be road cops too. Look at it this way, you’re building your resume in case you decide you ever want to go elsewhere.”

After the months it had taken him to find this job when those same budget cuts had wiped out his job with the GBI? He was going to stay put as long as they’d have him, and Calvert was right—he’d add any expertise he could get.

“Normally, we’d pair you with Investigator Mark Cook, but he’s already working with a dispatcher we pegged for cross-training plus he has cases before the grand jury this week. So you’ll be with Troy Lee Farr. He’s one of our best road officers. First time he’s trained anyone for us, but I think you two will be a good fit.”

“Works for me.”

Calvert twisted his wrist to grimace at his watch. “Troy Lee’s not due to sign on for another half an hour. Let me give you a quick tour, then you get to read through some training materials before you hit the road.”

The complex was new, sprawling and run with frightening efficiency. As they made their way through the jail intake and dispatch areas, Calvert kept up a stream of quiet questions, drawing him out, and he soon realized, using his answers to paint a picture of his life and personality. Once he’d confessed how long he’d been married, how long he’d been with the GBI, and his dislike of all kinds of Southern greens, they’d returned to the squad room.

“Troy Lee.” Calvert motioned for one of the deputies checking officer mailboxes. Rob eyed the other cop, sizing him up. They were about the same age, Farr being maybe a year or so older than Rob’s twenty-six years, and close to the same height. Farr had the lean, tight build of a runner, and curiosity and intelligence glinted in his intense blue eyes. Calvert gestured between them. “This is Rob Bennett. Bennett, Troy Lee Farr, your partner for the time being.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

The guy had a good grip. Rob’s dad had always said a man could be judged by his handshake. Rob didn’t remember ever shaking Jake’s hand. Maybe he should have made a point of it.

“You got this?” Calvert was addressing Farr. “Remember everything we talked about.”

“We’re good.” Farr flashed a wide grin. “Come on, Bennett. Let’s inspect the car and hit the road.”

Outside, Farr led the way to a silvery-gray Charger emblazoned with the department’s name and logo. The preshift inspection didn’t take long, although Farr explained each step and had Rob repeat it. Within minutes, Farr was taking a smooth left out of the parking lot, toward town.

Rob tapped a finger on his knee. Being in the passenger seat felt odd. Heck, having a partner, albeit a short-term one, felt even odder.

Farr squelched the radio, the squawking and voices audible but not grating. “Calvert said you used to be GBI?”

“Yeah.” The word came out raw and a little hoarse. Rob cleared his throat. “Almost five years.”

Maybe the bitterness lurked in his tone because Farr slanted a look his way. “Budget cuts?”

“Yeah.”

“You shouldn’t have to worry about that here, at least not for a while.” Farr slowed for the stoplight at Highway 19. “What with Randall City paying us to provide their service since they disbanded their city department and the federal grant money for the next few years and all. What did you do with the GBI?”

“A few cold homicides, but mainly prison investigations. Incidents involving inmates, complaints, internal affairs, that kind of stuff.” Rob watched the empty storefronts that had once held Winn-Dixie and the old Walmart flash by. “I worked that pretty much alone. This is the first time I’ve had a partner.”

“Me too.” Farr lifted a finger in greeting at the Coney city officer sitting in the median turn lane, running radar. A self-deprecating grin lifted one corner of his mouth. “I probably wouldn’t know where to begin an investigation, though. Chris—he’s our K9 officer—now, he gets off on it, investigating that is, but I don’t get it, man. I’d much rather be working traffic or answering calls.”

BOOK: Gone From Me: Hearts of the South, Book 10
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