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Tucker stood in the doorway of his bedroom and wondered why in hell there was a woman in his bed.
Unless, of course, he was hallucinating. After the kind of day he'd had, that wasn't out of the question. He blinked hard and looked again. Nope, she was still there. Practically buck naked and gorgeous.
Okay, then, he thought, deeply regretting that he hadn't had one last cup of coffee. He rubbed a hand over his face and tried to get his brain to kick in with the kind of quick thinking for which he was known in law enforcement circles. The woman was a reality. That still didn't give him the first clue about what she was doing in his house and, more specifically, in his bed.
He certainly hadn't invited her to share that king-size space, not in years, anyway. He hadn't even known she was there until he'd walked in the house, dead tired from working a double shift and ready for bed himself. If he hadn't flipped on the bedroom lights, he might have crawled in beside her, which wouldn't have been altogether a bad thing under other circumstances.
As it was, he was simply standing here, mouth gaping as if he'd never seen a half-naked woman before… especially this particular woman.
Last he'd heard, Mary Elizabeth Swan had wanted nothing further to do with him. In fact, the last he'd read on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she was marrying the local delegate to the Virginia house of delegates. Though that was far from the last occasion on which her name had appeared in print, it was the last time Tucker had permitted himself to read any article that mentioned her. He had to skip quite a bit in the local weekly—to say nothing of entire pages in the feature section of the Richmond paper when the house of delegates was in session.
It sometimes seemed to him as if Liz, as she preferred to be called these days, was on the board of every cultural institution in the entire state. Her picture—always taken at some fancy shindig requiring designer clothes—leapt out at him at least once a week, reminding him with heart-stopping clarity of just how susceptible he was to any glimpse of that flawless face and tawny mane of hair.
Of course, he sometimes had a hard time reconciling those sophisticated images with the girl he'd fallen for on a schoolyard playground the day she'd pummeled a nine-year-old boy for trying to sneak a peek at her panties while she'd been scrambling up a tree. Mary Elizabeth had been a tomboy back then, and while she'd eventually outgrown tree climbing, she'd never outgrown her go-for-broke enthusiasm for life. Not while she'd been with him, at any rate. She'd looked depressingly sedate in those newspaper pictures, however, so maybe she'd changed now that she was going on thirty and a force to be reckoned with in Richmond society.
Tucker had finally taken to tossing the feature section aside just to avoid the temptation to sit and stare and brood about what might have been… what should have been. What kind of pitiful excuse for a man couldn't get a woman out of his system after six years and a steady diet of gushing reports about the wildly successful man she'd chosen over him?
Lawrence Chandler had high-tech millions and political ambitions. Mary Elizabeth, who'd been born right here in Westmoreland County, came from generations of Virginia blue blood. She'd inherited Swan Ridge, her grandfather's estate overlooking the Potomac. A cynic might have wondered if that stately old house with its manicured lawn and sweeping views hadn't been as much a lure for Chandler as Mary Elizabeth herself. New money seeking old respectability, as it were.
Be that as it may, it was a marriage made in political heaven. If Tucker had heard that once, he'd heard it a hundred times, usually right before people realized they were saying it to the prior man in Mary Elizabeth's life, the one who'd loved her since childhood, the one who'd expected to marry her. Then they'd slink away, looking embarrassed or—even worse—pitying.
According to all those same reports, Chandler intended to be governor by forty, bypass Congress and head straight for the White House by fifty. Not one single political pundit seemed to doubt him.
But he wasn't likely to pull that off, Tucker concluded, if people discovered that his wife was sleeping just about bare-assed in the bed of a small-town sheriff who had once been her lover.
Tucker might have gloated over this turn of events, but he'd been a sheriff a long time now. Things were seldom what they seemed. He doubted Mary Elizabeth had come crawling back because she realized she'd made a terrible mistake six years ago and wanted to rectify it tonight.
Nope, one glimpse at her pale complexion, at what looked like dried tears on her cheeks and the dark smudges under her eyes, and he concluded that she was here because there was some kind of trouble and for some reason she was desperate enough to turn to him. The thought of the strong woman he'd once known being vulnerable and needy shook him as much as her unexpected presence.
He needed to think about this, and he couldn't do it in the same room with a woman who'd once made his blood roar just by glancing at him with her stunning violet eyes. Mary Elizabeth in a tangle of sheets with only one of his T-shirts barely covering her pretty much rendered him incoherent. She always had, and judging from the way his body was reacting right now that hadn't changed.
Tucker retreated to the kitchen and poured himself a stiff drink, thought about it and made it a double. He had a feeling he was going to need it before the night was over.
Liz stretched, then froze as a barrage of ugly memories crashed over her. For one instant, for one brief moment, she'd forgotten everything that had happened the night before. She'd forgotten the discovery that had brought her running to a man she'd abandoned years ago, the only person on earth she could trust to help her.
If he would.
He had to, she told herself staunchly. Tucker was not the kind of man to turn his back on someone in trouble, even someone he hadn't spoken to in years, someone who'd hurt him. Tucker was the most honorable man she'd ever known. She was counting on that mile-wide streak of Spencer integrity to come through for her, even if she didn't deserve it.
She hadn't expected to sleep at all when she'd gotten here. In fact, she'd expected to spend endless hours answering questions, but with no sign of Tucker on the premises, she'd been left all alone in the dark with her nerves rattled and her thoughts scrambling. She'd waited for a while on the porch, but eventually exhaustion and fear had taken their toll. She had gone inside the unlocked house—a testament to Tucker's faith in his own law-enforcement skills—in search of a much-needed shower to cleanse away all signs of the night's events.
Then she'd found one of his T-shirts tossed over the back of a chair, slipped it on and, like a child seeking the safety of a familiar place, had crawled into Tucker's bed to wait for him, uncertain what shift he was working or even whether he would be home at all. For all she knew, he could be spending his nights in another woman's arms.
Now, judging from the soft gray light spilling in the windows, she'd slept through the night. Alone, which was as it should be.
Some sixth sense told her that she might be alone in Tucker's bed, but she was not by herself. She rolled over and looked straight into eyes that were as familiar to her as her husband's. More familiar, in some ways.
Tucker regarded her with a cool, penetrating gaze that seemed to see straight into her soul. She wondered if he could see the turmoil, if he could read just how terrified she was… how relieved that he was finally there, even if his expression was far from friendly.
"Welcome back seems a little inappropriate," Tucker said with the wry humor that Liz had once decried because it kept her at a distance.
She studied his face, noted the new lines fanning away from the corners of his crystal-blue eyes, the furrow in his forehead that meant he'd spent most of the night thinking hard about how to cope with her unexpected presence. She wanted to touch him, wanted to smooth away that furrow and tell him not to worry, but that was out of the question. He had every reason to worry. She was about to draw him into a quagmire.
Not only was she—the woman who had once dumped him—suddenly back in his bed, but she was in more trouble than even Tucker Spencer with his keen intelligence, sterling moral streak and investigative skills was likely to be able to fix. But, God help her, she needed him to try… for both their sakes.
"Why are you here?" he asked, when she said nothing.
Liz wished she had the kind of simple answer he seemed to expect. "It's complicated," she began finally.
"Not good enough," Tucker said flatly.
His inscrutable gaze never once left her face, not even to stray to the ample amount of bare skin revealed by his twisted, hiked-up T-shirt. She shivered at the sudden chill in the air and drew the sheet tightly around her, embarrassed by her indecent exposure. Once it wouldn't have mattered, but now it did. Things between them had changed. Much as she might hate it, it was an undeniable fact.
She had to fight to blink back the tears that threatened. She wouldn't—she couldn't—cry. If she started, she might never stop. She had made such a mess of things—of her relationship with Tucker, of her marriage, of her life. Right now, though, she had to concentrate on one thing… finding out what had happened last night and who was responsible.
"Still have that rigid self-control, I see," she said, covering her nerves with sarcasm, even at the risk of alienating the only friend she was likely to have in Trinity Harbor, where people might have voted for her husband but had been slow to forgive her for the choice she'd made between Tucker and an outsider.
"It's gotten me through the rough spots," he replied evenly.
"Meaning what I did to you," she said, regretting that they hadn't had this particular conversation years ago and gotten it out of the way. But Tucker, stoic and disdainful, had refused to let her explain anything back then. He'd said it was enough that she was turning her back on everything they'd shared. He hadn't wanted to know the details, hadn't wanted to understand her reasons for choosing Larry over him. Maybe he'd been right. Maybe none of them were good enough to make what she'd done forgivable. Maybe he hadn't needed to know how deeply she regretted having hurt him.
In the years since, even though they lived within miles of each other for part of the year, she'd done her best to stay out of his path. She'd figured she owed him that much. And if she hadn't come to that conclusion on her own, King Spencer had made it a point to remind her every time they'd crossed paths. She'd made a powerful enemy there, no doubt about it.
"Is our breakup the rough spot you're talking about?" she asked.
"That was one thing," he agreed.
It saddened her that there might have been more, that he'd suffered losses, endured crises, she'd known nothing about. "And the others?"
"Liz, you're not here to catch up on old times," Tucker said with a hint of impatience. "Why are you here, instead of over at Swan Ridge? Where the hell are your clothes? What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into, and last—but hardly least—why aren't you turning to your husband for help?"
She shivered again at the cold glint in his eyes and wondered if she'd made a dreadful mistake in coming here. Tucker was, after all, the sheriff. His first obligation would be to the law, not to her. But instinct had brought her to Tucker, and desperation would keep her from leaving. She needed help that he could pro vide…if he would. It all came down to that.
"I'm afraid Larry can't help me with this one," she told him.
She risked a look into those hard, unyielding eyes, praying that Tucker would forgive her for the past, praying even harder that he would help her despite it.
"Because he's dead," she said, then added before she could lose her nerve, "and everyone's going to think I killed him."
Well, hell, Tucker thought, as Mary Elizabeth's explanation hit him in the gut. He should have known she wasn't here to rekindle an old flame. He had known it. A part of him just hadn't wanted to believe it. A part of him, overcome with that same old uncontrollable lust, hadn't given two figs why she was back. He was going to have to try really, really hard to ignore that part of him, at least until he knew what the devil was going on.
If Chandler was dead, why hadn't he heard about it? Surely it would have been big news. She couldn't possibly be telling him it had just happened, could she?
"When did he die?" he asked, trying to ignore the fact that tears were welling up in her eyes and that she was doing her best to keep them from spilling down her cheeks. Mary Elizabeth had always hated to let anyone see her cry, especially him.
"Sometime yesterday, I think. I'm not sure." He stared at her incredulously. "You don't know?" "I went to Swan Ridge last night about eleven," she began.
The news just got worse and worse, Tucker concluded.
"Am I hearing you right? It happened here, in Trinity Harbor?" he demanded as the ramifications of that slammed into him. He had a dead politician in his jurisdiction and no one knew about it. Dear God, what had Mary Elizabeth been thinking?
She nodded at his harsh question. "Yes. I…" She swallowed hard. "I found him. And then I came here."
"Damn it, Mary Elizabeth, have you lost your mind?" Tucker exploded before he could stop himself.
Now the tears were more than she could fight. A steady torrent of them streamed down her cheeks, and Tucker's heart flipped over. He fought the reaction and stayed right where he was.
"I didn't know where else to go, what else to do," she whispered.
She sounded more frightened and helpless than she'd ever sounded in her life, at least around him. Bravado had been ingrained in her from the day she'd arrived to live with her grandfather, a little girl who'd just lost her parents and been left with a man who was a virtual stranger.