Authors: Jennifer Blake
She released the last vestige of mental resistance to the sheriff's aid. She could stop fighting, at last. Sighing with relief, she surrendered to the thought, and to the embrace of the sheriff of Turn-Coupe.
The sound of the ambulance began as a distant whine that was as persistent and annoying as a circling mosquito.
It could be heard for what seemed a long time before it rounded the bend with its red lights blending with the blue-and-white strobes of the patrol car until it seemed the woods would catch fire with the brightness. The sheriff didn't release her as Tory half expected, but stayed with her even when a paramedic stepped down from the vehicle and came toward them.
“Glad to see you, James,” he said over his shoulder then in what sounded like strained displeasure. “She needs a blanket.”
“Sure thing.” The attendant turned and issued a low-voiced command. Seconds later the silver covering of a thermal blanket settled over Tory. From somewhere above her head, she heard the attendant speak again in calm assurance. “We've got her now, Roan. We'll take care of her.”
Roan. It was an odd name with an old-fashioned ring to it. And the dispatcher had called him Sheriff Benedict, hadn't she? Roan Benedict, then. It was a name she would remember, she thought, as she felt the sheriff ease away, relinquishing her to the impersonal care of the others.
The rest was a blur of movement, voices, renewed cold and renewed pain as she was examined with brisk competence then loaded into the ambulance. It seemed she was leaving behind something important, but she couldn't think what it might be. Then she heard the low murmur of Sheriff Roan Benedict's voice somewhere nearby. She tried to push her hand free of the confining blanket, to reach out, but she was strapped down too well. The ambulance doors slammed shut and the vehicle started off.
She was alone once more.
he patrol unit's siren wailed as it hurtled toward Turn-Coupe ahead of the ambulance. Roan kept his eyes on the road, his hands on the wheel, and his mind on the business at hand. He didn't want to think about the woman strapped into the speeding emergency vehicle behind him. And he had no time for the sick regret that lay like a lead weight in his belly.
He'd never shot a woman before; it was definitely a first. He hoped it was also his last.
The lights of the town appeared around a curve. Seconds later, he flashed through the courthouse square, past the old Greek Revival building with its pediment-topped portico supported by columns, its wide steps and weathered bronze Civil War monument half hidden among the drooping limbs of a big live oak. With the official part of his brain, he scanned the row of low-budget shops that lined one side of the square. A light still burned in Millie's Beauty Salon. She'd been putting in long hours since her husband was diagnosed with cancer, probably needed the extra money. He made a mental note to send a deputy by to make sure she was all right and maybe escort her home when she was ready.
The hospital was about a mile on the other side of town, on land donated by its mayor of the past twenty years. His Honor had believed that the growth of the town would eventually overtake the hospital and it would be part of a prosperous business district. The businesses had turned out to be used car lots, garages and manufactured housing places, dotted here and there with a lumber yard, barbecue joint or rundown flea market. The town council tried hard to interest heavy industry, but the community had been passed over time and again. It seemed doomed to remain a small, sleepy place supported by a couple of medium-size sawmills and the sportsmen who visited the lake and stayed in Betsy's motel or bought beer, bait and sandwich makings at her convenience store. It was hard on the people like Betsy and Millie who had to make a living in town, and on the kids out of high school and college looking for jobs close to home.
Roan didn't mind. Small was good. Small meant clean streets, quiet nights and little in the way of a criminal element. At least, that was the way it had been until tonight.
He eased past the hospital's emergency entrance drive a few feet, then pulled over and stopped while the ambulance turned in behind him and made the short run to the glass doors under the steel-and-plaster portico. From that vantage point, he watched the technicians and nurses unload his prisoner. She looked so slight and pale on the sheet-covered gurney with its attachments of tubes and plastic bags. His eyes burned as he saw her being wheeled into the hospital's lighted interior. It was only as the doors closed behind her that he realized he'd forgotten to blink.
The additional patrol unit that he'd requested arrived just then. Roan radioed the officer, Allen Bates, to take over, instructing him to stick with the woman until she was out of surgery and safe in a hospital room then take up duty
outside the door. Still, Roan didn't move on, even after he saw the deputy follow the stretcher inside.
He had escorted ambulances hundreds of times. Often they carried people he knew, friends, even family. He usually concentrated on the safety of the person in transit and also of the other drivers and pedestrians who crossed their path. Tonight was different. Tonight, he'd hardly known what he was doing.
He couldn't get the memory out of his head of the woman lying so still, with blood soaking into her shirt and his bullet in her shoulder. That endless time before the ambulance arrived was a nightmare in which he'd moved and acted like an automaton. Somehow, it blended in his mind with that other time, the night he'd found Carolyn lying on the floor of their bedroom, beside the bed they had shared for three years. Blood, there had been so much blood everywhere, even on the black shape of his extra handgun that she'd used on herself and the folded white note that she'd left for him.
He'd tended his wife as he tended the suspect tonight, had held her in his arms, willing her to live, during the short ride to the hospital. She had made it, mercifully, though their marriage had died that night. Since dying had seemed preferable to living with him for her, he'd given her the divorce she requested.
Roan shook his head to clear it. This woman tonight wasn't Carolyn, bore no resemblance to the fey, illusive girl-child who had been his wife. Life was almost too much for Carolyn, but it seemed nothing was too much for the woman he'd shot. She'd come at him out of the dark, a trim shape in shining white, tumbling with muscled grace and with deadly determination shining in her eyes. He'd been primed for many things, but she wasn't one of them.
To fire had been an instinct so basic that he couldn't even recall pulling the trigger.
He'd shot her.
He'd been brought up to revere women, Roan thought. They were everything that was soft and tender and bright and good. They carried within them the promise of life itself, and to protect that promise was his honor and his privilege. The females who came through his jail didn't always fit the picture, but he never quite got over the feeling that they should, and might have if circumstances had been different.
He had that feeling now about his new prisoner. Which was crazy, since he didn't know her at all.
Still, he'd seen her, talked to her, and she bothered him. She didn't have the hard-edged bravado or unkempt carelessness of the kind of woman who operated outside the law. Women's fashions weren't exactly his strong point, but the outfit she'd had on looked high style, obviously expensive. She had the time and money for regular attention to her nails. Her hair shone with health and carried the tantalizing perfume of some expensive shampoo. Her eyes had appeared to be a mysterious hazel in the semidarkness, and she had glared at him with unselfconscious disdain. The cadence of her voice had been almost accent-free, like that of a trained actress or maybe someone who had attended a fancy school. Her body, when he held her, had been as slender and fine-boned as a thoroughbred's. The overall impression was that she should have stepped from a limousine instead of falling out of a rusty van.
She claimed she'd been kidnapped, the only information she'd offered. On the surface, it seemed plausible. But if so, then what was she doing cooperating with the pair of lowlifes shown on Betsy's security camera? Why had she
wielded a handgun during the robbery? How come she hadn't been screaming for help at the top of her lungs when she came out of the van? Better yet, how had she been allowed to escape?
The whole thing didn't add up. It gave him a twisted feeling in his gut. It created chaos in his orderly world. It was a mystery, and he didn't like mysteries.
The best way to handle the problem was to get concrete answers as soon as possible. His immediate inclination was to stay at the hospital, partly to be on hand when the doctors indicated she was able to talk, but also to be sure she was all right. Still, no one would be allowed anywhere near her until her condition stabilized, not even him. His time would be better spent coordinating the search for the suspects still at large. Sherry had reported that Betsy had dropped off the tape from the robbery on her way home. If he could get a clear freeze-frame of the two men from it, he'd put out an immediate APB.
He'd get a frame on the woman, too, while he was at it. For purely professional reasons, of course. What else?
Leaning forward, Roan started the unit's engine and headed back toward town.
His dedication to the job lasted nearly two whole hours. At the end of that time, he headed back to the hospital. On the way, he swung out by the house on the lake to change his bloodstained uniform and make sure Jake was home from the movies; he trusted his son but a bunch of teenage boys could get into trouble without half trying.
As Roan approached the door of the operating room assigned to his prisoner, Allen Bates stepped from the waiting room next door. A question hovered in the deputy's eyes, though an easy smile lighted the rich, double-fudge brown of his face.
“Thought I'd see how it's going,” Roan said in answer to that look of inquiry. “Any excitement?'
“Not so you'd notice. Nurse down at the surgical station said to tell you to come see her when you dropped by.”
“I'll do that.” That duty nurse would be Johnnie Hopewell, an invaluable source of information for what was going on under the covers, so to speak, in Turn-Coupeâsince most of the results eventually showed up at the hospital. She'd been a Benedict before she married, so was also his cousin. Dark-haired, vivacious, and pleasingly plump, she was a favorite with patients and with him. Roan tipped his head toward the operating room doors as he went on. “I suppose the suspect is still in surgery?”
“Unless somebody wheeled her out the back way. A med tech stuck his head out a little while ago and said they'd be another half hour, give or take.”
“That bad, huh?”
“It's not good, from what they say, but you know how it goes. Takes longer to get ready for the job than it does to get it done.”
Roan nodded. “If you'll hold the fort here until after I see Johnnie, I'll relieve you.”
“I thought you'd be heading home. Cal's got the graveyard shift, doesn't he?”
“He's still out chasing the bad guys. Besides, I wanted to keep an eye on progress here.”
“Yeah,” Allen said. “I can see how you would.”
Roan appreciated the understanding in the deputy's voice, but it didn't exactly add to his comfort. He touched the brim of his Stetson in acknowledgment, then headed on down the hall.
Johnnie looked up when she heard his approach, then threw down her pen and came to meet him. “It's about
time you showed up,” she complained. “What the hell do you mean, adding to my workload?”
“Sorry.” He returned her quick embrace, and was in no hurry to break it.
“I'll just bet you are.” Her smile faded as she drew back to study his face.
More sympathy was about to be offered, he thought. In an effort to avoid it, he said, “Anyway, you like the excitement and you know it.”
“Some kinds, I can do without!” Her voice turned wistful. “Though I wouldn't say no to a good party about now.”
“That's Luke's department.”
The look she gave him was jaundiced. “Not anymore, not since he got married.”
“I had noticed our cuz wasn't throwing as many shindigs.”
“Think he's afraid somebody, especially some other Bad Benedict, will steal his April away from him?”
Roan smiled. “I think he's just, wellâ¦”
“Busy, huh?” Johnnie laughed, a deep, rich sound. “Guess they don'tâdidn'tâcall him Luke of the Night for nothing.” She slid a quick gaze over Roan from head to heels while a reminiscent smile rose in her eyes. “Of course, we were all pretty wild in high school, weren't we? Even you, before you started hanging out at the sheriff's department.”
Roan sighed and stepped back. “That was then, this is now. What's the word on my prisoner?”
Johnnie sent him an intent look before she answered in the same businesslike tone. “She's going to make it, no thanks to you. She lost a lot of blood but is stable, for now, as long as they don't run into anything too drastic. They're removing the bullet, repairing the damage. Recovery may
take a while, so I hope you don't plan to haul her off to jail any time soon.”
He shook his head, aware at the same time of the easing of the tension inside him. He'd been half afraid Johnnie might have bad news.
She studied him for a second, as if not quite satisfied with his answer. Then she reached for a manila envelope that lay on the counter and passed it over. “Your girl's been fading in and out. I tried to get a name, but it was no good. We removed all her personal effects before surgery. This was on her ankle, and I thought you might want to look at it.”
Roan turned the envelope over in his large hands. The words
were scrawled across it in black marker. He had a strange notion not to open it, not to proceed further and to let it go, let the woman go, before he found out something he didn't want to know.
It wasn't possible. She was linked to one known robbery and might be implicated in others. His job was to find out who she was and turn her over to the justice system. As the parish sheriff, he had considerable authority, including some leeway as to who was or was not charged with a crime, but that power was a serious responsibility; abusing it was not in his rulebook or in his nature. He had sworn to uphold the law, and he would do it, regardless of who got hurt.
With an abrupt gesture, Roan thumbed open the envelope and poured the contents into his hand. He thought it was a bracelet at first, until he saw the extra length and realized it was an anklet. It was surprisingly heavy, a fine yet intricate chain with the deep burnish and minute scratches of well-worn eighteen-karat gold. Linked into it was a set of letters formed with channel set stones that glittered with diamond fire. As he straightened the piece of jewelry along
his palm with a fingertip, it seemed to carry a lingering hint of the body heat of the woman who had worn it. Then he saw that the linked letters formed a name.
Roan wasn't much given to New Age touchy-feely stuff or even to hunches. Still, holding the anklet to the light so the letters glittered up at him, he felt a shiver of premonition scrape down his spine.
He frowned, a slow scowl that left an arch in one brow.
Johnnie, staring at him, put a hand on one ample hip as she demanded, “What?”
But that was an evasion, if not an out-and-out lie. His prisoner didn't seem like a Donna. It was one more thing that felt all wrong.
Roan didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit.
“There's another problem,” Johnnie said.