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Revenge was such an ugly word. And Jena Brooks was about to get up close and personal with ugly.
She paused at the office door of Constable Carson Corbett, straightened her deep plum suit, made sure the buttons of her cream silk blouse were fastened and tossed her shoulder-length dark hair to emphasize its layered effect.
But even with the expensive clothes, artfully applied makeup and professionally cut hair, Jena couldn't disguise who she really wasthe girl from the wrong side of the tracks whose father had killed Jared Corbett in cold blood.
Because of her.
Or that was what everyone in Willow Creek, Texas, thought.
She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Carson looked up. His green eyes narrowed as he recognized her. "You have a lot of nerve coming back to Willow Creek."
She closed the door and marched to the chair in front of his desk. His harsh words grated on her sensitive nerves like a cocklebur and oddly boosted her courage.
"You won't believe the nerve I have, Mr. Corbett."
Sitting with as much grace as her trembling limbs could provide, she placed her purse on the floor and crossed her legs. Her pencil skirt shimmied up, revealing more of her legs than she'd wanted.
She stared straight at him, resisting the urge to tug at her hemline, and was surprised to catch his eyes on her legs. Briefly.
He leaned back in his leather chair, the fabric of his light blue shirt stretching taut across wide shoulders.
"Why are you here?"
"Revenge." She fired the word at him with the force of a bullet intending to annihilate his composure. But it didn't work.
His self-possession seemed firmly intact as he asked, "For what?"
"You know what."
"Sorry." He shrugged. "You'll have to fill me in."
"Do the Corbetts have a patent on that dumb expression?"
He leaned forward, his eyes never leaving hers. "Ms. Brooks, we can trade snide remarks back and forth all day, but I have work to do. So, once again, why are you in my office?"
"I came back for my child."
"And that has something to do with me?"
"You really have that blank expression down."
"That's because I don't know what the hell you're talking about." His voice rose with frustration.
"Then I'll fill you in." Her voice rose, too. "I would be talking to your father, Asa, but I heard he's had a stroke. You'll pardon me if I don't offer any consolatory words."
His face darkened.
"Just before I turned eighteen, I was pregnant with your brother's child."
"Wait." He held up a hand. "Pa always insisted it wasn't Jared's."
"Yeah, that's why after Jared's death "
"Murder," he corrected in a chilling voice.
Her control slipped for a split second, but she would not be intimidated or stopped. Not this time.
"Asa's goons kidnapped me a week before my due date and took me to the Bar C Ranch. Minnie Voltree, the midwife, gave me something to induce labor, and six hours later I gave birth. The baby was taken away. I never saw it and don't even know if it was a boy or a girl. Your father came in and said to my face, 'A life for a life, girlie. Now you'll never pass that kid off as a Corbett. My advice to you is to get out of town as fast as you can because if I see you in Willow Creek, I'll bury you so deep your body will never be found. And your mother and sister will join you.'"
She'd spoken the words in a cool and unemotional imitation of Carson's father, but at the end her voice cracked. She hated that she couldn't control that weakness.
"That's a tall tale, Ms. Brooks, and I'm not sure why you're telling it to me. This supposedly happened years ago."
She reached into her purse and pulled out a business card. Placing it on his desk, she said, "I work for a criminal attorney in Dallasa very good criminal attorney. He's given me the courage to fight for what's mine. I left here a broken, naive girl, but I've come back a mature, strong woman. I want my child, and your father knows where my baby is. I intend to get that information."
"Shouldn't you be talking to the sheriff?"
She picked up her purse and stood. "Out of respect for my child and for my mother and my sister, who still live here, I'd rather do this discreetly. I'll give you two days to question your father. After that, my attorney will be contacting the proper authorities." Without another word, she walked out.
Carson cursed under his breath, feeling as if he'd been sideswiped by a Mack truck going about ninety miles an hour. Was she telling the truth? His mind grappled with what she'd said. It didn't make sense. He'd been in the Marines at the time, so he couldn't be sure about anything. And he sure couldn't imagine his father doing something so barbaric. But then again, Asa Corbett lived by his own rules.
He picked up the card. Blake Davenport and Associates, PC. Jena Brooks was one determined woman, and he couldn't ignore that. He'd start by verifying some facts and take it from there.
Glancing at his watch, he got to his feet and headed for the doortime to pick up the kids. It was the end of May and the end of another school year. His kids were excited about the summer break. Trey, his son, more so than his daughter, Claire. At four, Claire was more excited about playing with her Barbie dolls or watching SpongeBob SquarePants.
Trey was an outdoor boy. He loved fishing, hunting, riding his horse, helping with the cows and basically just getting dirty. When he was five, Beth had died giving birth to Claire. Trey'd been sad for so long. They all had been.
Beth had been the love of Carson's life, his high school sweetheart. Living without her was an indescribable heartache. But he had two kids to raise, and he had to be strong for them every day.
He couldn't imagine someone taking one of his children. That would kill him. His thoughts turned to Ms. Brooks. He knew she'd been pregnant all those years ago. Beth had written him many times about her and about Asa's wrath that she planned to pass her bastard child off as a Corbett. Then Jared, his brother, had been murdered by Lamar Brooks, and Carson had never given the pregnancy another thought. At the time, he'd wanted the whole Brooks family to rot in hell.
When he heard of his brother's murder, he was devastated and soon made the decision to leave the Marines. His family needed him. Beth was about to give birth to their son, and he wanted to be there.
Jared's body had been found on the side of the road next to his truck. He'd been shot with a shotgun at close range. The gun belonged to Lamar Brooks. Before Lamar could be arrested, he was found dead in his own driveway. The weapon used was also a shotgun. Asa owned one, but when the sheriff ran a ballistics test, it didn't match.
Everyone thought Asa had killed Lamar to avenge the death of his son. It was never proved, though. To this day it remained the biggest crime and scandal to ever happen in Willow Creek. Now Jena Brooks was dredging it all up again.
What had happened to her baby? And was it Jared's? Whatever the answers were, he was being dragged right into the middle of it. Their peaceful town would be abuzz with rumors and half-truths. And it was up to him to sort through it all.
He didn't relish the task.
He'd just as soon never see Jena Brooks again.
Jena drove over the railroad tracks that ran through Willow Creek. She passed a trailer park and then took a right onto a gravel road. Another left and she rolled into the Brookses' driveway. She turned off the engine of her Honda Accord and stared at the run-down frame house. It once was white, but it was hard to tell that now. The boards were almost bare. Several screens were missing. To the right was an old car with grass grown up around it.
She'd spent the first eighteen years of her life here on the wrong side of the tracks, living off welfare and food stamps. Her dad was a drunk who couldn't hold down a job, and her mother was weak, putting up with a crappy way of life. They received bags of used clothes from different charities and food and toys during the holidays. It was mortifying for a young girl.
She used to dream of leaving Willow Creek and never coming back. Never again living on food stamps and welfare. And never being like her parents.
Her hands ached and she realized she had a death grip on the steering wheel. She hadn't been home in nine years, and it was a bit unnerving. As was her visit with Carson Corbett. Since he was five years older than her and Jared, she'd never formally met him, but she'd seen him often around town with his girlfriend, Beth. Jena definitely knew who he was.
He had the same dark blond hair and green eyes as Jared, except Carson was taller and more muscular, probably because of his military training.
When she'd heard of Asa's stroke from her sister, Hilary, she'd known if she was ever going to find her baby she'd have to do it quickly. If Asa died, he would take his secret with him. It had taken her nine years to get to this point, and no one was stopping her now. Not even Carson.
She got out of the car and walked through the grass to the front door. One of the things she remembered from her childhood was that the grass always needed cutting and they didn't have a lawn mower. She and Hil used a Weedwacker to chop it down around the house to keep the mice away.
The boards creaked as she stepped up, but then, they always did. Not much had changed. Her mother's rocker still sat on the front porch, where she used to wait for her daughters to walk home from school.
She hadn't told her mom she was coming home, and she wasn't sure how she was going to react. All these years, Norma Brooks had insisted that Jena stay away from Willow Creek. She was still afraid Asa Corbett would kill her daughter.
Opening the screen door, she called, "Mama." She didn't want to frighten her.
Norma appeared from the kitchen in jeans and a print blouse, shock etched across her aging face. Her dark eyes were dull and her dark hair was almost gray at fifty years of age. Jena stood in shock, hardly believing her mother's health had deteriorated this much.
"Jena, what are you doing here?"
She closed the door and walked in. "Hi, Mama. Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Oh, Jena, my beautiful daughter." They hugged tightly, and Norma drew back, wiping away a tear. "Just look at you. All citified. I almost didn't recognize you, but you have to go. You can't stay here."
She took her mother's arm. "Mama, we have to talk."
"Okay, but not too long." Norma sank into an old worn recliner they'd gotten from Goodwill more than twenty years ago. Duct tape covered the threadbare arms.
Jena pulled a wooden chair close to her mother and noticed a bucket near the windows. Glancing up, she saw the brown stains. The roof was leaking. She'd sent Hilary money for a new roof. What had she done with it? She couldn't think about that now.
"Mama, Asa Corbett has had a stroke. Hilary told you."
Norma frowned. "I don't remember."
Hilary had said their mother had memory lapses and was out of it a lot these days. It was unsettling to witness.
"He has. He's in a wheelchair, and he's not going to hurt anyone. It's been so long ago no one cares anymore."
No one but me.
"I don't know," Norma murmured in a faraway voice.
"Mama, I'm going to be staying a few days, and you've got nothing to worry about."
The screen door banged and Hilary breezed in with a Styrofoam takeout container in her hand. "Hey, sis, you made it."
People said they looked alike, and Jena supposed they did with the same dark eyes and hair and similar facial features. But the resemblance ended there. They were totally different in personality. Hilary was a bubbly scatterbrain who talked constantly. Jena, on the other hand, was reserved and quiet. She'd been called uptight more than once. Jared was the only one who'd seen she was a warm, compassionate person in need of love. Desperate for love.
"Did you bring my dinner?" Norma asked.
"Sure did, Mama. I'll put it on the kitchen table. It's Mabel's pot roast with mashed potatoes, gravy and homemade rolls. Peach cobbler for dessert. You better eat it while it's warm." Hil hurried into the kitchen.
"Okay." Norma followed her and so did Jena.
Hil fixed a glass of iced tea and placed it and a napkin on the table.
Jena watched this, rather mystified. Her mom was a wonderful cook and was capable of making delicious meals with the little food they'd had. Why wasn't she cooking?
Jena went back into the living room, and soon Hilary joined her. "I had no idea Mama was this bad."
"Ever since Dad was murdered and Mama got you out of town so quick, she hasn't been the same. Every day she gets a little worse."
"Did she just stop cooking?"
"She left grease on the burner twice, and it caught fire. I just happened to be home or our" she glanced around the drab room "mansion would have burned down. I had one of the guys turn off the gas to the stove. I can turn it on if I need to, but since I work at the cafe I bring her food."
Hilary had worked at Mabel's Cafe ever since she was sixteen. There weren't many jobs in Willow Creek, a town of four hundred. Her sister would be stuck here for the rest of her life, taking care of their mother.
She reached out and hugged her. "Thank you, baby sis, for all you do."
"Aw." Hil pulled away. "You gonna make me cry."
"I know it's not easy dealing with Mama."
"It's like dealing with a child."
"I know we talked about her doctor visits. Is there nothing else he can do?"
Hil shook her head. "He said severe trauma from the murders has altered her personality, and dementia has set in, but I know her moods. We're okay."
The bucket caught Jena's attention. "I hate to sound critical when I'm so appreciative, but what happened to the money for the roof?"
"Oh, that. Don't get upset. Wait till you see."
Jena followed her sister through the kitchen and suddenly stopped. There was a utility room off the kitchena bright cheery room painted a soft yellow with a white washer and dryer. One wall had a mural of a rainbow, clouds and birds.
Jena was speechless.