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LaMesa Springs, Texas
A killer was in the house.
Sheriff Beck Tanner drew his weapon and eased out of his SUV. He hadn't planned on a showdown tonight, but he was ready for it.
Beck stopped at the edge of the yard that was more dirt than grass. He listened for a moment.
The light in the back of the small Craftsman-style house indicated someone was there, but he didn't want that someone sneaking out and ambushing him. After all, Darin Matthews had already claimed two victims, his own mother and sister. Since this was Darin's family home, Beck figured sooner or later the man would come back.
Apparently he had.
Around him, the January wind whipped through the bare tree branches. That was the only sound Beck could hear. The house was at the end of the sparsely populated County Line Road, barely in the city limits and a full half mile away from any neighboring house.
There was a hint of smoke in the air, and thanks to a hunter's moon, Beck spotted the source: the rough stone chimney anchored against the left side of the house. Wispy gray coils of smoke rose into the air, the wind scattering them almost as quickly as they appeared.
He inched closer to the house and kept his gun ready.
His boots crunched on the icy gravel of the driveway. No garage. No car. Just a light stabbing through the darkness. Since the place was supposed to be vacant, he'd noticed the light during a routine patrol of the neighborhood. Beck had also glanced inside the filmy bedroom window and spotted discarded clothes on the bed.
The bedroom wasn't the source of the light though. It was coming from the adjacent bathroom and gave him just enough illumination to see.
Staying in the shadows, Beck hurried through the yard and went to the back of the house. He tried to keep his footsteps light on the wooden porch, but each rickety board creaked under his weight. He knew the knob would open because the lock was broken. He'd discovered that two months earlier when he checked out the place after the murder of the home's owner.
Beck eased open the door just a fraction and heard the water running in the bathroom. "A killer in the shower," he said to himself. All in all, not a bad place for an arrest.
He made his way through the kitchen and into the living room. All the furniture was draped in white sheets, giving the place an eerie feel.
Beck had that same eerie feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He'd been sheriff of LaMesa Springs for eight years, since he'd turned twenty-four, and he'd been the deputy for the two years before that. But because his town wasn't a hotbed for serious crime, this would be the first time he'd have to take down a killer.
The thought had no sooner formed in his head when the water in the bathroom stopped. He had to make his move now.
Beck gripped his pistol, keeping it aimed.
He nudged the ajar bathroom door with the toe of his boot, and sticky, warm steam and dull, milky light spilled over him.
Since the bathroom was small, he could take in the room in one glance. Outdated avocado tilesome cracked and chipped. A claw-footed tub encased by an opaque shower curtain. There was one frosted glass window to his right that was too small to use to escape.
Beck latched on to the curtain and gave it a hard jerk to the left. The metal hooks rattled, and the sheet of yellowed vinyl slithered around the circular bar that supported it.
"Sheriff Beck Tanner," he identified himself.
But his name died on his lips when he saw the person standing in the tub. It certainly wasn't Darin Matthews.
It was a wet, naked woman.
A scream bubbled up from her throat. Beck cursed. He didn't know which one of them was more surprised.
Well, she wasn't armed. That was the first thing he noticed after the "naked" part. There wasn't a gun anywhere in sight. Just her.
Suddenly, that seemed more than enough.
Water slid off her face, her entire body, and her midnight-black hair clung to her neck and shoulders.
Because he considered himself a gentleman, Beck tried not to notice her small, firm breasts and the triangular patch of hair at the juncture of her thighs.
But because he was a man, and because she was there right in front of him, he noticed despite his efforts to stop himself.
"Beckett Tanner," she spat out like profanity. She swept her left hand over various parts to cover herself while she groped for the white towel dangling over the nearby sink. "What the devil are you doing here?"
Did he know her? Because she obviously knew him.
Beck examined her face and picked through all that wet hair and water to see her features.
She was obviously older than the last time he'd seen her, which was when? Just a little more than ten years ago when she was eighteen. Since then, her body and face had filled out, but those copper brown eyes were the same.
The last time he'd seen those eyes, she'd been silently hurtling insults at him. She was still doing that now.
"Faith Matthews," Beck grumbled. "What the devil are you doing here?"
She draped the towel in front of her and stepped from the tub. "I own the place."
Yeah. She did. Thanks to her mother's and sister's murders. Since her mother had legally disowned Faith's brother, the house had passed to Faith by default.
"The DA said you wanted to keep moving back quiet," Beck commented. "But he also said you wouldn't arrive in town until early next month."
Beck figured he'd need every minute of that month, too, so he could prepare his family for Faith's return. It was going to hit his sister-in-law particularly hard. That, in turn, meant it'd hit him hard.
What someone did to his family, they did to him.
And Faith Matthews had done a real number on the Tanners.
"I obviously came early." As if in a fierce battle with the terry cloth, she wound the towel around her.
"I didn't see your car," he pointed out.
She huffed. "Because I took a taxi from the Austin airport, all right? My car arrives tomorrow. Now that I've explained why I'm in my own home and how I got here, please tell me why you're trespassing."
She sounded like a lawyer. And was. Or rather a lawyer who was about to become the county's new assistant district attorney.
Beck had tried to convince the DA to turn down her job application, but the DA said she was the best qualified applicant and had hired her. That was the reason she was moving back. She wasn't moving back alone, either. She had a kid. A toddler named Aubrey, he'd heard. Not that motherhood would change his opinion of her. That opinion would always be low. And because LaMesa Springs was the county seat, that meant Faith would be living right under his nose, again. Worse, he'd have to work with her to get cases prosecuted.
Yeah, he needed that month to come to terms with that.
"I'm trespassing because I thought your brother was here," he explained. "The clerk at the convenience store on Sadler Street said he saw someone matching Darin's description night before last. The Rangers are still analyzing the surveillance video, and when they're done, I figure it'll be a match. So I came here because I wanted to arrest a killer."
"An alleged killer," she corrected. "Darin is innocent." The towel slipped, and he caught a glimpse of her right breast again. Her rose-colored nipple, too. She quickly righted the towel and mumbled something under her breath. "Before I got in the shower, I checked the doors and windows and made sure they were all locked. How'd you get in?"
"The back lock's broken. I noticed it when I came out here with the Texas Rangers. They assisted me with the investigation after your mother was killed."
Her intense stare conveyed her displeasure with his presence. "And you just happened to be in the neighborhood again tonight?"
Beck made sure his scowl conveyed some displeasure, too. "As I already said, I want to arrest a killer. I figure Darin will eventually come here. You did. So I've been driving by each night on my way home from work to see if he'll turn up."
She huffed and walked past him. Not a good idea. The doorway was small, and they brushed against each other, her butt against his thigh.
He ignored the pull he felt deep within his belly.
Yes, Faith was attractive, always had been, but she'd come within a hair of destroying his family. No amount of attraction would override that.
Besides, Faith had been his brother's one-night stand. She'd slept with a married man, and that encounter had nearly ruined his brother's marriage.
That alone made her his enemy.
Faith snatched up her clothes from the bed. "Well, now that you know Darin's not here, you can leave the same way you came in."
"I will. First though, I need to ask some questions." In the back of his mind, he wondered if that was a good idea. She was only a few feet away and naked under the towel. But Beck decided it was best to put his discomfort aside and worry less about her body and more about getting a killer off the streets.
"When's the last time you saw your brother?" he asked, without waiting to see if she'd agree to the impromptu interrogation.
With a death grip on the towel, she stared at him. Frowned. The frown deepened with each passing second. "Go stand over there," she said, pointing to the pair of front windows that were divided by a bare scarred oak dresser. "And turn your back. I want to get dressed, and I'd rather not do that with you gawking at me."
It was true. He had indeed gawked, and he wasn't proud of it. But then he wasn't proud of the way she'd stirred him up.
"Strange, I hadn't figured you for being modest," he mumbled, strolling toward the windows. He could see his SUV parked out front. It was something to keep his focus on, especially since he didn't want to angle his eyes in any direction in case he caught a glimpse of her naked reflection in the glass.
"Strange?" she repeated as if this insult had actually gotten to her. "I'd say it's equally strange that Beckett Tanner would still be making assumptions."
"What does that mean?" he fired back.
Her response was a figure-it-out-yourself grunt. "To answer your original question, I haven't seen Darin in nearly a year." Her words were clipped and angry. "That's in the statement I gave the Texas Rangers two months ago. I'm sure you read it."
Heck, he'd memorized it.
The part about her brother. Her sister's ex. Her estranged relationship with all members of her family. When the Rangers had asked her if Aubrey's father, Faith's own ex, could have some part in this, she'd adamantly denied it, claiming the man had never even seen Aubrey.
All of that had been in her statement, but over the years he'd learned that a written response wasn't nearly as good as the real thing.
"You haven't seen your brother in a long time, yet you don't think he's guilty?"
Beck wished he'd waited to ask that particular question because he would have liked to have seen her reaction, but there wasn't any way he was going to turn around while she was dressing.
"Darin wouldn't hurt me," she finally said.
He rolled his eyes. "I'll bet your mother and sister thought the same thing."
"I don't thinkhe killed them." Her opinion wasn't news to him. She had said the same in her interview with the Texas Rangers. "My sister's ex-boyfriend killed them."
Nolan Wheeler. Beck knew him because the man used to live in LaMesa Springs. He was as low-life as they came, and Beck along with the Texas Rangers had been looking for Nolan, who'd seemingly disappeared after giving his statement to the police in Austin.
Well, at least Faith hadn't changed her story over the past two months. But then Beck hadn't changed his theory. "Nolan Wheeler has alibis for the murders."
"Thin alibis," Faith supplied. "Friends of questionable integrity who'll vouch for him."
"That's more than your brother has. According to what I read about Darin, he's mentally unstable, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, and he resented your mom and sister. On occasion, he threatened to kill them. He carried through on those threats, though I'll admit he might have had Nolan Wheeler's help."
"Now you think my brother had an accomplice?" Faith asked.
He was betting she had a snarky expression to go along with that snarky question. "It's possible. Darin isn't that organized."
Or that bright. The man was too scatterbrained and perhaps too mentally ill to have conceived a plan to murder two women without witnesses or physical evidence to link him to the crimes. And there was plenty of potential for physical evidence since both victims had been first shot with tranquilizer darts and then strangled. Darin didn't impress him as the sort of man who could carry out multistep murders or remember to wear latex gloves when strangling his victims.
Beck heard an odd sound and risked looking in her direction. She was dressed, thank goodness, in black pants and a taupe sweater. Simple but classy.
The sound had come from her kneeling to open a suitcase. She pulled out a pair of flat black shoes and slipped them on. Faith also took out a plush armadillo before standing, and she clutched onto it when she faced him head-on. She was about five-six. A good eight inches shorter than he was, and with the flats, Beck felt as if he towered over her.
"My brother has problems," she said as if being extra mindful of her word choice. "I don't need to tell you that we didn't have a stellar upbringing, and it affected Darin in a negative way."
It was the old bad blood between them that made him want to remind her that her family was responsible for the poor choices they'd made over the years.
Including what happened that December night ten years ago.
Even now, all these years later, Beck could still see Faith coming out of the Sound End motel with his drunk brother and shoving him into her car. She, however, had been as sober as a judge. Beck should know since, as a deputy at that time, he'd been the one to give her a Breathalyzer. She'd denied having sex with his brother, but there'd been a lot of evidence to the contrary, including his own brother's statement.
"You got something to say to me?" Faith challenged.
Not now. It could wait.
Instead, he glanced at the stuffed baby armadillo. It had a tag from a gift shop in the Austin airport and sported a pink bow around its neck. "I heard you had a baby." Because he was feeling ornery, he glanced at her bare ring finger.