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Roth Sterling had sworn he'd never set foot in the godforsaken hellhole of Quincey, North Carolina, again. But twelve years after his escape, here he stood, eating those bitter words.
The town held too many memories. Most of them bad. But what choice did he have with his murderous bastard of a father due to be paroled from prison in two months?
He opened the door of his new apartment, stepped inside and shoved the key into his pocket. He had limited time to convince his mother not to allow the animal who'd beaten her for fifteen years back into her life. Better yet, Roth would persuade her to divorce the man and take out a restraining order. But even if she did, could the town's five-officer team enforce it?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Restraining orders tended to be useless if the one being restrained chose to ignore them. He'd seen enough domestic abuse cases end badly during his time with the Charlotte Police Department to know the statistics. They weren't good.
He'd spoken to his father only twice in the past seventeen years, most recently when his father had announced that he and Roth's mother were going to move into their old house in Quincey.
Roth's father had filled his ears with a load of rehabilitated, remorseful, I've-been-saved crap, and Roth hadn't believed one word of it. The old man still had an evil glint in his eyesthe same glint Roth had often seen as a kid right before dear ole dad knocked him senseless. But Roth's pleas to the parole board to keep his father behind bars had fallen on deaf ears, and he'd had to change tactics.
His parents' return to Quincey was forcing Roth to do the same. Temporarily. Quincey's advertisement for a police chief had provided a perfect cover. As the newly appointed chief, Roth would be in a position to insure that if his father laid a hand on Roth's motheror anyone elsehe'd pay. Roth hadn't been able to protect her when he'd been a kid, but he could now. He rested his right hand on the butt of his Glock. With lethal force, if necessary.
History wasn't going to repeat itself. Not on his watch.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease out the stiffness, then strolled through the den, kitchen and each of the two bedrooms, noting the age and wear of Quincey's only apartment building.
A fresh coat of off-white paint on the walls couldn't compensate for the scarred hardwood floors, worn linoleum and old cabinetry. The place was clean, but it was a far cry from his condominium in the gated complex in Charlotte, with its clubhouse, gym, pool and hot tub, but these digs would suffice.
He wasn't crazy about being on the ground floor. It made unlawful entry too easy. The sliding glass door onto the small patio could be a problem. He registered the inadequate locks on the doors and windows and the nooks and crannies where a perp could hide. He'd have to hit the hardware store before it closed if he wanted to beef up his security. Quincey used to roll up the sidewalks at dark. Did they still?
He returned to the living room and glanced out at his loaded-down Chevy truck and the rented U-Haul trailer parked by the curb. In the olden days his buddies would have shown up before his tires cooled to help him unload, but he'd seen no sign of Chuck, Joe or Billy since arriving an hour ago. At three on a Thursday afternoon they might be at work. He hadn't notified them of his arrival. He'd counted on the Quincey rumor mill doing the job for him. No doubt the phone lines had started humming the minute he'd signed his contract last month.
He was looking forward to seeing the guys and catching upif they still lived here. The letters between him, Joe and Billy had been sporadic, first because none of them had been the letter-writing type, and second, because Roth's unit had often been deployed to places where mail delivery wasn't high on the list of survival needs. By the time he'd settled in Charlotte the correspondence had ceased altogether. Maybe the guys had finally escaped. Twelve years ago that's all any of them had wanted.
Any of them, except Piper Hamilton.
A hint of regret weighted his shoulders. Piper's roots had run deep in the community, and she'd never planned to leave. He raked a palm over his freshly trimmed hair and tried to push away the memories, but he couldn't force the image of her trusting blue eyes and long, sunlit hair from his head. He'd loved her. More than he'd ever loved anyone. And he'd hurt her. Deliberately. Not with his fistshis father's modus operandibut with his actions, his words.
They'd been little more than kids, too young to take on the commitment they'd been racing toward. The split couldn't have been anything but good for them. But it hadn't been easy. And he'd handled it badly. It had worked out for him. The Marines had given him his first taste of freedom from living in his father's dark shadow and success and a career he loved. Had it worked out as well for Piper? Had she married and raised a family the way she'd wanted?
He had a few ghosts to lay to rest and apologizing to Piper was at the top of the list.
In a town this size, he'd bump into her sooner or later, but he preferred to set his own timetable instead of waiting. He'd make it happen. The sooner the better.
A knock on the door preceded Doyle, the apartment manager. "Suit ya?"
"Sure you want to pay month to month? Save ya fifty bucks a month if you sign a year's lease."
Roth had no intention of being here that long. "Month to month is fine."
"Alrighty then. Y'all have a good day." Doyle waddled down the cracked sidewalk toward his office.
Roth stepped outside. His furniture wasn't going to unload itself. He headed toward his truck, aware as his boots pounded the concrete of the watchful eyes and shadows shifting at windows. But no doors opened, and no one came out to say hello or offer assistance as he rolled up the trailer's door and lowered the ramp.
He'd expected more of a welcome, for curiosity's sake if nothing else. After all, it wasn't every day one of the town's delinquents returned to head up the local law enforcement team.
He scanned the empty streets. An invisible noose tightened around his neck and claustrophobia closed in, slowly crushing out a lungful of the smog-free air.
Folks in a tight-knit community liked to stick their noses in your business, often acting as judge and jury, their opinions shaped by hearsay rather than fact. They usually helped out when you needed 'emif for no other reason than to root for tidbits to tattle.
But apparently not today.
He checked to make sure his leather jacket concealed his weapon. The pistol could be scaring off people. He wouldn't officially pick up his badge until Monday morning, but surely the citizens expected the new chief of police to carry a weapon in or out of uniform?
The temperature was mild for the end of March, but he'd work up a sweat. Regardless, he'd keep on the jacket. He unstrapped the hand truck and muscled his gun safe onto the two-wheeled unit. Getting the hazards out of the way and securing them was his first order of business. He manhandled the heavy piece up the walk. After he situated the steel box in the spare bedroom closet, he returned to the trailer and lugged boxes inside, stacking them in the rooms labeled on each box.
A couple of teenagers whizzed past on skateboards, staring hard but not slowing. Ditto the beige station wagon, navy sedan and silver pickup with a dented rear quarter panel and low rear tire.
Hell, he was starting to think folks didn't want him here. You'd think they'd be pleased that he'd finally gotten his act together.
An hour later he had emptied the truck bed and had everything out of the trailer except the sofa, dresser and his king-size mattress, and still no one had offered assistance. That wasn't like the town he remembered. Screw it. He'd hit the hardware store, buy better locks and try to round up a strong back to help him finish the job.
He locked up, hoofed it across the asphalt and turned down Main Street. This morning when he'd driven in he'd been surprised to find that little had changed in the past twelve years. There were a few more shopshe'd investigate another day.
He pushed open the door and automatically noted two customers, white males, sixties, and Hal Smith behind the cash register in what looked like the same blue apron he'd always worn. The store owner, with his wispy white hair in a bad comb-over that couldn't hide his pale, spotted scalp, had to be eighty by now.
"Mr. Smith, good to see you again."
The owner sized him up. Roth offered his hand and the man hesitated before returning the gesture. The shake was brief. "Sterling. Heard you was coming back. What can I do for you?"
The cool tone was hard to miss. Damn strange, considering Quincey needed a chief, and Roth was, if anything, over-qualified, and he'd taken one hell of a pay cut for this job. What was the problem? "I need window and door locks."
"Doyle's apartment not secure enough for you?"
"No, sir. A credit card would jimmy anyone in."
"Locks are on aisle three." But Hal didn't move to help. Maybe age had slowed him down.
"I also need help unloading a few bulky items. Know anyone interested in earning a few bucks?"
Smith glanced toward the other customers then at Roth. "Can't say as I do."
Roth nodded his thanks and turned for aisle three. Guess it would take a while for folks to figure out he wasn't a hell-raising kid anymore. He wouldn't be in town longer than absolutely necessary, but he'd be here long enough to show this apple had fallen far from his daddy's rotten tree. He wasn't white trash anymore.
Roth Sterling was back.
Piper Hamilton fought a rising tide of panic as she reversed out of her parking space as fast as she dared. Her fingers cramped on the steering wheel and her palms grew slick.
She'd heard the first whisper of impending doom when Mrs. Peabody had brought her geriatric cat into the veterinary clinic after lunch. Then it seemed each successive client had made a point of sharing the latest Roth sighting with Piper.
Roth had bought locks at the hardware store. Roth had hired a couple of high school kids to help him unload furniture. Roth had visited the market, but he hadn't driven his big black pickup over to the old home place yet
Roth this. Roth that. As if she wanted a play-by-play on the man she used to lovethe one who'd dumped her and left her pregnant.
Most of the afternoon's clients had also made sure Piper knew they wouldn't welcome the man who'd usurped her father as chief with the community's usual open arms and Southern charm. While she appreciated their loyalty, their animosity only added to her worries. If the town gathered their figurative wagons around her, Roth might think she had something to hide. And she did.
The only stoplight turned red as she approached the intersection at Main Street even though there wasn't any oncoming traffic. She muttered a curse and braked hard. It had been one of those days when nothing went right.
She checked her mother's real estate office parking lot. Empty. Hopefully Mom was at home guarding the fort and the treasure.
Piper ripped the clip from her hair and massaged her scalp, then tapped the wheel, urging the light to change. When it finally did she had to resist the impulse to race home. Not even being the chief'sformer chief'sdaughter made her immune to getting pulled over for a lecture. If anything, her father's deputies had become a little over-zealous in their honorary "uncle" roles since her father's stroke six months ago.
Her father. She sighed. Eight weeks ago the town council had strong-armed him into resigning and told him they'd already begun searching for his replacement.
His bitterness over being stripped of the job that defined him for thirty years festered inside him like an abscess. He'd spread his infectious pus of discontent over anyone within hearing distance.
But why had the town council hired Roth Sterling? Surely there had been better candidates than a troublemaker who'd left town and not once come back to visit?
Her street finally came into view. She saw her mother's sedan in the driveway of the home they shared and exhaled in relief. If her mother was at home, then maybe Josh would be, too. Piper prayed her son would be in his room, doing his imitation of an uncommunicative adolescent.
She threw the car into Park and raced up the walk. Her mother opened the door before Piper could reach for the knob. "I take it you've heard?"
Piper didn't ask for clarification. "Yes. Where's Josh?"
"Upstairs. I bought him a new game to keep him occupied until we come up with a plan."
"Good idea." Usually Piper didn't allow her son to veg out on video games until after he'd finished his homework, but today she'd settle for anything that kept him out of sight.
"Piper, what are we going to do?"
The house smelled delicious, a testament to her mother's stress level. Mom always baked when she was agitated. Piper put down her purse and hung up her jacket then checked to make sure Josh wasn't nearby. To be on the safe side, she pointed to the kitchen and held her tongue even though her thoughts were tripping all over themselves. They reached the room on the opposite side of the house from his bedroom.
"We'll do whatever it takes to protect him, but we'll have to stick with the same story you told everyone before Josh and I came home."
"Do you think Roth will buy it?"
"I hope so. I can't believe he came back. He always wanted more than Quincey had to offer." More than she had to offer.