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Authors: Kim O'Brien

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Fourteen

Ty Steele drew his pistol and threw open the door to the Eat and Go. He spotted the suspect immediately, a cloaked dark figure crouching over the prone body of the clerk.

“Police!” he yelled, scanning the store for other perpetrators and gripping his pistol with both hands. “Freeze,” he ordered. “Drop your weapon and move away from the man.”

The suspect eased backward. Ty couldn't tell if he had a weapon under the black hooded sweat suit or not. “Put your hands up,” Ty said, moving closer, simultaneously assessing danger and injury to the prone clerk.

“Okay,” he told the suspect. “Turn around slowly with your hands in the air.”

With one hand steady on his gun, Ty reached for his handcuffs. His fingers froze as the suspect's face became visible. His eyes widened then narrowed. It had to be some sort of mistake. The suspect had green skin. And if that wasn't bad enough, it looked like Laney Varner. It couldn't be, could it? “Is that you, Laney?”

The suspect nodded and slowly pulled the hood off her head. Ty felt his jaw drop. “You're green.”

“I know it,” Laney said.

“And you're wearing tinfoil in your hair.”

“It's a beauty treatment,” Laney snapped. “Don't stand there. You have to do something. I can't get Mr. Zoowalsky to open his eyes.”

Beauty treatment? Only if she were a Martian. Ty knelt
beside the clerk and put his fingers on the man's wrist. He
felt a strong, steady pulse and watched the even rise and fall of the man's chest. He checked for other injuries and found none.

Unable to resist, he shot Laney a sideways glance. “What happened?” he asked. “Did your spaceship run out of gas?”

Laney groaned. “I got locked out of my friend's house. I just wanted to use the pay phone.” She pointed to the wall behind them. “When the clerk saw me, he fainted.”

Ty bent over the inert man. “Open your eyes, Mr. Zoowalsky. You're okay.”

“He thinks I'm an angel of death,” Laney said. Ty heard the misery in her voice and fought the urge to smile.

“He's going to be fine. You just scared him a bit—that's all.” Ty paused. “We'll get him checked out, but my guess is that he's playing possum.”

“I'm so sorry, Mr. Zoowalsky,” Laney said. “I didn't mean to scare you. Please open your eyes.”

Mr. Zoowalsky shook his head.

Ty's eyes twinkled as his gaze swept over Laney's face. “You want to tell me how you happened to get locked out of your friend's house?”

“I was checking out a lead,” Laney admitted. “I haven't given up looking for the person who left that note behind in church.”

He stroked his chin. “You'd better find that writer fast before you kill off half the town.”

Laney glared at him. “Very funny.”

Ty smiled. He couldn't help himself. She looked cute in the funny makeup. No real harm had been caused, and he would do his best to help put things right for her. “Why don't you go get cleaned up?”

Laney sighed and fingered the tinfoil in her hair, managing despite the Martian appearance to seem very human and vulnerable.

Ty reached over and squeezed her hand. “You should go,” he urged. “Go back to your friend's house and get cleaned up. I'll handle this. My backup will be here soon.”

Laney nodded and slipped out of the store. As soon as it shut behind her, Mr. Zoowalsky stirred and sat up. “Is she gone?”

Ty nodded. “Are you in pain? Did you hit your head?”

The clerk shook his head. “When she walked in, I thought I was a goner.”

Yeah, I can relate to that,
Ty thought. Something happened to him whenever he was around Laney, and he wasn't talking about fishing snakes out of drains or getting the contents of a watering can dumped over him.

She made something want to come to life within him. Something he had thought was pretty much dead. Her presence recharged and restored an essential part of him that had been absent for years, maybe a lifetime. She made him laugh and frustrated and baffled him. Above all, she made him aware that he cared for her.

At the same time, he was too much of a realist to believe that lasting happiness waited around the corner for him and Laney. She was engaged. Besides, he had vowed never to let himself become vulnerable to another woman, and he wasn't about to change his mind now.

She had to learn for herself that knowing how to make Rock's coffee or iron his shirts would not guarantee her a happy marriage, either, or even provide an unbreakable foundation for a great relationship. In truth, he didn't know how people stayed together.

The deepest kind of loneliness, he thought, was being in a relationship with the wrong person. He remembered all too well how he would pick up Anna Mae for a date in his car. She would sit beside him but look out the window. No matter how hard he tried, it always seemed as if her thoughts were a million miles away. Of course he couldn't tell Laney any of these things. He had no business interfering with her life.

It was the last thing he needed.

Fifteen

Later that night, G. C. Varner called an emergency meeting at his house.

“Drink your tea,” he ordered Laney. “You look green.”

“I am green,” Laney said. “My facial mask got left on too long.” She stirred her tea slowly. “I'm so sorry, Dad, about what happened.”

Thomas, Laney's youngest brother, passed the sugar bowl toward her. “The clerk is going to be fine. The heart monitor he's on is just a precaution.”

Beside her, as close as the table leg would allow, Rock nudged her in a reassuring manner and caused her to jiggle the teacup and spill some of its contents. As she mopped the stain, her father cleared his throat.

“I don't have to tell you we have a situation on our hands.”

Laney looked down. “I just wanted to use the pay phone.”

“Even if tonight had never happened, we would still be having this meeting,” he said. “Attempted robbery is nothing compared to conspiracy to murder.”

Laney shot Rock a sideways glance. “What are you talking about?”

“We understand you're under a lot of pressure,” her father said slowly, “but you can't go around threatening people.”

“Threatening people?” Laney's head shot up. “I haven't threatened anyone.”

Her father gestured to Rock, who was smiling as if the expression were held in place by clothespins. “Tell her,” he said.

“Mother has it in her head that you don't like her.” Rock's smile dimmed a bit. “She thinks you might want to off her.”

“Off her?” Laney blinked.

“You know.” Rock shifted uncomfortably and drew his finger in a line across his throat.

“I can't believe she would think that about me,” Laney cried, unexpectedly hurt.

“You can't argue with the facts, honey,” Rock argued smoothly. “First there was the gerbil food incident.”

Laney crossed her arms. “I didn't ask her to eat it, if that's what you're implying.”

“You didn't stop her, either,” Rock reminded her.

“It would be easier to flag down a 747 than stop your mother.”

Thomas laughed, but Rock's expression remained neutral. “What about the way you tore up that bridesmaid's dress?”

“I wasn't threatening her,” Laney protested.

“She wants a restraining order,” Rock said. “Of course that was over the top, and I talked her out of it. I did, however, promise you'd get help.”

“Help?” Laney repeated. The room had become warm despite the air-conditioning. She fanned herself. “She's the one who needs help if she thinks I was trying to off her.” She stared at Rock in disbelief. “Don't you see what she's doing?”

Rock sighed wearily. “What is she doing?”

“She's trying to make you think I'm crazy so you won't marry me. She's never thought I was good enough for you.”

The color in Rock's face deepened. “Maybe we should discuss this privately.”

“You brought it up,” Laney replied stubbornly.

Rock fiddled with his moustache, and then his fingers progressed to check the alignment of the hairs in his light brown eyebrows. “All right then. I think you were out of line with my mother.”

Laney drew in her breath. “You're siding with your mother?”

“Not exactly. I don't think you're dangerous, just temporarily agitated.” He smiled the donut smile Laney knew preceded a compliment. “You're high-strung. All women of good breeding are. You'll calm down after the first child.”

Calm down? Well-bred?
Laney glared at him. She wasn't a horse and, if she were temporarily agitated, he was the one causing it.

“Now, kids,” her father broke in. “We've got damage control to do here.”

Thomas leaned forward. “Laney, we know all this is premarital jitters.”

“But,” Rock broke in smoothly, “a man is in the hospital, and Mother is worried. She's even written her attorney a letter to be opened in the event of her death.” He shrugged. “Laney had better hope Mother doesn't slip in the bathtub.”

“I'm only five points behind Steele in the polls,” Laney's father said. “Thomas's family values campaign is working. I can win if we can get past your premarital jitters.”

Laney looked at the deep grooves that curved across his brow. She saw the yearning in his eyes to win the election and felt the old stirring in her to please him. At the same time, her pride was wounded by the way they treated her.

“I don't have premarital jitters,” Laney stated. She drew her hand through her hair then turned to her father. “I can't believe you're taking his side.”

He snorted and pushed his chair back an inch from the table. “I'm not taking anyone's side,” he said. “I'm just trying to mediate a solution.”

“You want to drug me.”

“Mediate,”
Thomas said, “not
medicate
.”

“I know the difference,” Laney snapped.

“Of course you do.” Thomas laughed without humor. “We just want to make sure you're not going to come apart at Dad's municipal building dedication.” He paused. “You won't, will you?”

“Of course I won't!” Laney cried.

Thomas looked at her steadily. “We all have a lot riding on this election,” he said. “I don't have to tell you what will happen to my PR firm if Dad loses.”

“So what do you want me to do?” Laney asked. She looked down at her folded hands, knowing her father didn't have the answer she sought.
So what do You want me to do?
she repeated silently.
I've messed up again, big time. Please tell me what it is You want. I thought I knew Your will for me, but I don't. I don't even know the man I'm going to marry as well as I thought.

“First,” her father said, “don't talk to any reporters about what happened at the Eat and Go. Second, you'll do whatever it takes to mend your relationship with Tilly. Last, you'll practice your introduction of me until you're blue in the face.” He pointed to her green-tinted cheeks. “By blue, I mean that as an expression.”

Laney flinched as her father's eyes bored into hers. “Do you have a problem with any of this, Laney?”

She longed to tell him to stop staring at her as if she had directly inspired every tornado that had ever touched down in Texas.

Laney looked down at the diamond shining on her finger. She'd thought that getting married would lead her to a better life, or at least to a much less lonely one. Instead, she felt more apart from everyone than ever.

She sighed and nodded. “I'll do my best.”

The men at the table relaxed visibly. “Good,” Rock said with relief in his voice, “because I've already set up a time with Mother for Saturday night. She's agreed to teach you how to make pancakes.”

“I didn't think you liked pancakes,” Laney said, frowning.

“I don't,” Rock admitted. “It was the one thing I could think of that didn't involve any sharp instruments.”

“Oh, great,” Laney muttered. “She's probably going to want me to wear a straitjacket instead of an apron.”

It didn't help when Rock neither laughed nor disagreed with her.

Sixteen

The next morning, Laney drove with Angel to Good Faith's undeveloped land and went in search of God's will by the pond where everything had started.

As the cool, dark water came into sight, some of the tightness seemed to leave Laney's chest. She filled her lungs with the pine-scented air.
Thank You, God, for the beauty of this place. Thank You for Mr. Zoowalsky's good doctor's report. I'm glad he's decided to attend church regularly from now on. Could You please help me find the person who wrote the note in church and help them?

Suddenly Angel yelped joyfully and launched himself in the direction of a tall, broad-shouldered man who stood at the edge of the water.

Laney couldn't help feeling glad to see him. And Angel was surely happy about it.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in return. “I thought I told you not to come here by yourself. It's way too isolated.”

Laney nodded. “That's exactly why I came.” She sighed. “I needed a place to be alone. Everyone in town thinks what happened last night with that clerk is hilarious.” She paused. “Well, almost everyone.”

“I'm not laughing,” Ty said gently. “Well, not anymore, that is.”

“My dad is about to kill me,” Laney added. “I don't even want to think about what he's going to say if the
Daily Destiny
writes the story.” She shook her head. “And the worst thing is that I'm no closer to finding the person who wrote that note than when I started.”

“Laney, all this will blow over. If your family doesn't realize what a great heart you have by now, they're crazy.” He stepped closer to her. “Didn't Rock think you made a pretty cute Martian?”

“Actually, he thought I needed stress management sessions,” Laney admitted. “Which is better than what my future mother-in-law thought. She told Rock I'm emotionally unstable.” She tried to smile and make light of it. “And you know what that clerk at the convenience store called me—an angel of death.”

“What happened last night wasn't a big deal,” Ty said. “If you ask me, calling you an angel of death was a huge overstatement.”

In the face of such sympathy, Laney felt her heart melt. “You're the first person who's said anything nice about what happened.” She looked up at him. “Thank you, Ty.”

He shrugged it off. “Maybe the next time you feel like going on a stakeout, you'd better call me.”

“You'd go with me?”

“Of course.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Ty promised.

“Because you think I'd mess up without you.”

He shook his head. “Because I want to help you. Because you're nice.”

Laney felt her throat tighten. She fought to keep the tears down.

“You're a strong person, Laney. You'll see all this hoopla through.”

Nobody but him had ever seen strength inside her. She smiled in gratitude. Something beautiful passed between them. She recognized it as friendship. Or was it? Was there something else in his eyes?

Laney took a step away from him. “Look—thanks for listening to me, but I'd better get going.”

“Laney, wait.”

She turned to go, but something in his voice stopped her. Then in the very deep distance she heard the roll of thunder.

She remembered her childhood illusions, how she had imagined she would hear the sound of thunder when she found the man of her dreams. She had long ago decided true love didn't happen that way.

Maybe Rock and her family were right—she had a huge case of premarital jitters, and this explained why her nerves felt jangled.

“The storm,” Ty said. “It's coming fast.”

The thunder rumbled again, louder now. The sky darkened, and she saw the first blink of lightning. The rain splattered them, sporadically at first. Big, fat drops fell heavily on their heads and shoulders. Ty looked over his shoulder and frowned. “We'd better run for it.”

He dashed ahead of her into the shelter of the woods. Around them leaves pinged as raindrops exploded onto them. “Hurry,” Ty urged her as they raced down the path she had just traveled.

The rain picked up, hurling pellets that filled the woods with a cacophony of sound, turned leaves a shade of deep, vibrant green, and lifted the sweet smell of rich earth.

Even as the rain soaked her, Laney felt like laughing. She drew in great breaths of the clean, sweet air, made cold by the storm. She delighted in the feel of the earth beneath her pounding feet and the challenge of racing the storm.

Ty reached his car first. Yanking the front door open, he waited for her to get inside then slammed it shut. Moments later he threw himself into the driver's seat.

Breathing hard, Laney sat listening to the rain pounding the roof of the car. She glanced at Ty but didn't speak. She didn't think she could be heard above the roar of the rain. Ty grinned, and she grinned back.

They were both out of breath, dripping wet, and completely at the mercy of the storm. And yet she felt exhilarated.

Lightning flashed in eye-dazzling forks of electricity so beautiful that Laney could only sit in wonder, completely in awe of the forces around them.

Part of her wished the storm would go on forever. She felt safe and comfortable. Even when the seconds between the lightning strikes lengthened into minutes, she sat still, listening to the drum of rain.

Finally Ty broke the silence between them. “That was some storm.”

“It was beautiful, wasn't it?”

“You weren't scared?”

Laney shrugged. “I've always liked storms. Didn't anyone ever tell you thunder is just the angels bowling?”

“Not for a long time.” Ty wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. “A storm can be dangerous. It's not something to romanticize about.”

“I'm not,” Laney said slowly, “but a storm can also have a purpose.”

Ty snorted. “Tell that to someone who loses his home when a tornado hits it.”

“I would tell that person God doesn't cause bad things to happen,” Laney said. “And one thing I know is He can take any tragedy and turn it into triumph.”

Ty looked at her. “Any tragedy?”

“Any tragedy,” Laney confirmed. “You just need to have faith in Him.”

Laney sensed something stirring within him and hoped it was an urge to embrace a belief that God was no farther away than the chambers of his heart.

Ty frowned as if he were considering her words hard. She could sense the silent struggle. She wanted to comfort him, to share her faith, and to help heal whatever scars still pained him.

“Don't you think it's time you told me about what's tearing you up inside?”

Ty looked away. He was quiet for so long that she thought he wouldn't answer her question. And then he began.

“We ran every morning at 5:30,” he finally said, “at the high school's cross-country course. I pushed the pace even faster that morning, so when we got back to the school, both of us were doubled over in pain, which meant we'd had a great run.”

As Ty continued his story, Laney closed her eyes and pictured the whole scene unfolding.

❧

Mickey reached over to tousle his younger brother's hair. “You should have been a distance runner, not a policeman.”

Gasping for breath, Ty sank onto a concrete bench in a courtyard outside the cafeteria. “You're getting soft is all,” he said. “Sitting around in a cushy teaching job.”

He was only teasing. Both knew it.

“A cushy job is driving around all day in a squad car and eating donuts,” Mickey replied when he had enough air. “The real work is teaching.”

Ty made a snort of disagreement, although in his heart he agreed. Mickey taught with a passion and knowledge that had earned him a National Teacher's Award. At times he seemed so in touch with his students that he could have been reading their minds.

Ty walked over to an abstract concrete statue, which resembled a very confused cactus plant. He ran his hands over the grooves in the statue wondering what the drilled holes symbolized. He was about to make a flip remark when his hands touched something smooth and cylindrical.

“Check this out,” Ty said, withdrawing his hand. “It's a bullet case.”

There had been six bullet cases.

“We should report these,” Ty said.

Mickey shook his head. He held the bullet casings in his hand and rolled them around. “It's probably just a joke.”

Ty shook his head. “We shouldn't fool around with this.”

“We won't,” Mickey promised. “Just give me a day to put my feelers out. We'll find out more that way than if you drive up to the school in a tank and start leveling lockers.”

The sweat dripped into Ty's eye. He wiped it with the back of his hand. All his instincts demanded immediate action. He looked at his older brother, trying not to be swayed by a lifetime of following Mickey's advice.

“I don't know,” Ty said. “I don't like this.”

Mickey smiled and flicked sweat off his arm at his brother. “Trust me,” he said. “I know the kids here. They're good kids. All they need is a chance to prove that.”

❧

“Two days later, two students walked into Fairmont High School, and six people died. Mickey died shielding one of the targeted boys with his body.”

Sweat stung Ty's eyes, the way it had all those years ago when he had found the casings. His hand rubbed his aching eyes, smearing moisture onto already wet skin.

“Mickey would be alive if I'd insisted we go to the police right away. It's all my fault.”

This was his secret, his guilt, the private pain he had not allowed himself to share with anyone until now. He could barely bring himself to look at Laney.

“I'm so sorry about your brother,” she said. Her eyes were full of a compassion he had never seen before. “But it wasn't your fault.” She looked hard into his eyes and drew a shaky breath. “We may not understand why tragedies occur, but nothing happens by chance. We're all here for a reason.”

Ty let out his breath in a huff. “I don't know what I believe anymore.” He looked at her, his eyes still full of pain. “I heard a hawk cry out earlier today, just before you showed up at the lake.”

“I saw it in the sky,” she said.

“I followed one just like it at the high school,” Ty continued. A distant part of himself begged him to shut up. “I ended up in an outdoor courtyard. I looked down and saw a drawing in the gravel.” He paused. “Someone had sketched what looked like a bullet with a bunch of numbers inside.” He looked down. “I wanted to search lockers for firearms.”

“Why didn't you?”

“A drawing in the gravel isn't enough evidence.”

She smiled at him. “What would be the harm in checking the lockers?”

“It would require a search warrant,” Ty explained. “Even if I went over your father's head, no judge would grant one based on a crude drawing in the gravel.”

“Did you copy down what you saw?”

Ty nodded. “It's in my wallet. There isn't much to see, just a bunch of numbers.”

“Could the numbers be a student identification number?”

“No,” Ty replied. “I checked. Student ID numbers have seven digits. This has more.”

“How about a combination to a lock?”

Ty nodded. “Could be,” he said. “I thought so, too. No way to be sure unless we access the records.”

“Can't you just hack your way into the computer?”

Ty laughed. “Sure. That's about as likely as a firearms-sniffing dog showing up on my front step.”

“What if you could do a locker-to-locker?” Laney insisted. “What if you had a firearms-sniffing dog at your disposal? Would you do it?”

An unlawful search? Ty couldn't believe his ears. Did she think he was crazy? “Of course I wouldn't,” he said. “You think I want to do something illegal just weeks before the election?”

“You don't have to ask my father for a bomb-sniffing dog. We have one right here in Destiny.”

Ty frowned. “We do?”

“Yes, it's Angel.”

Ty laughed. “Angel?”

Laney's chin lifted. “Angel is a graduate of the Canine Development Center in Austin. It was a perk of Dad's job. Anyway, Angel passed the bomb-sniffing course with flying colors.”

“You trained a papillon to be a police dog?”

Laney nodded. “We've never had to use him before. But it's only been about five years. I'm sure Angel hasn't forgotten a thing.”

Ty rubbed his hands over his face hard. “That little weenie dog can sniff out gunpowder?”

“With 99.9 percent accuracy,” Laney said. “The instructor in Austin was very impressed.”

“I can't believe I'm hearing this,” Ty said.

“So when do we do the locker-to-locker search?”

Was he actually considering this? He bit down on his lower lip hard and ordered himself to get a grip.

After a moment, Ty sighed. “Saturday.”

“Will you have a key, or are we going in through a window?”

“Neither,” Ty said grimly. “We'll pick the lock.”

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