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Ryan's killer was most likely a vagrant.
With her brother-in-law's assessment echoing in her head, Holly Bancroft Cole suppressed a shiver. Rubbing her arms, she cast an appraising glance around the Halloween party at the Community Aid Center in Morgan Hollow, North Carolina.
New faces dotted the crowd. But were any of them killers?
A loud cheer turned her attention to the festivities. The center's volunteers had all dressed up in goofy, creative and occasionally creepy costumes to entertain the city's homeless and underprivileged children. At the moment, two clowns led the kids on a wild scavenger hunt for candy, while Holly, wearing her bridal gown, oversaw the refreshments. The children's parents hovered along the walls, as well as a few men who were regulars at the donated clothing room or the center's soup kitchen. While the party was billed as a children's Halloween bash, no one had been turned away.
Flipping back her bridal veil for a better view, Holly scanned the unshaven, bedraggled faces of the vagrants who'd gathered this Friday for free hot cider, entertainment and a warm place to pass the chilly October afternoon. Could one of these men have killed Ryan for his watch, wallet and Reeboks?
Apprehension and suspicion crawled up her spine.
Little evidence had been collected at the crime scene just over a year ago when her husband had been murdered and robbed. The local police, including her brother-in-law Robert, called Ryan's death a tragic, random attack. Robert held out little hope that Ryan's killer would ever be caught.
But Robert's gloomy outlook didn't sit well for Holly. She wanted resolution to the many mysteries concerning Ryan's attack. Shewanted justice. And she needed closure. While she'd come to grips with Ryan's death and had begun picking up the pieces of her shattered life, she hated all the blanks in the account of what happened the night Ryan was killed.
Maybe the police wouldn't ever have enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial, as Robert projected. But any tiny shred of understanding would go a long way in settling the nagging questions she had.
"You know, you should have smeared some blood on your face or worn a scary mask."
Carol Hamburg's comment yanked Holly from her morose thoughts.
"That wedding dress is great, but you could have come as the Bride of Frankenstein or something."
Tucking a stray wisp of her blond hair behind her ear, Holly shrugged as she faced the Community Aid Center's petite director. "I'd considered fake blood, but I really didn't want to risk getting makeup on the dress. I wore this gown when I married Ryan, and I've worn it every year since for Halloween. It's a tradition."
"Really? How'd that get started?"
Holly smiled wistfully. "After our wedding, I complained to Ryan about how much the dress cost, to be worn only once. So, frugal and practical man that he was, he dared me to use it every Halloween as my costume." She paused and sighed. "I almost didn't put it on today. But I'm glad I did. It makes me feel closer to him."
Carol blinked her surprise. "I'm just jealous you're still the same size you were when you got married."
Before Holly could reply, a loud cry rose over the chatter in the room. She and Carol exchanged a concerned look before moving together in the direction of the commotion. The crowd of curious children, startled mothers and homeless men shrank away from a little boy in superhero pajamas lying on the floor unconscious.
His lips were blue.
Icy horror washed through Holly in concentric waves as the reality of what was happening sank over her.
"Call 9-1-1!" she shouted to Carol as she dashed to the boy's side and dropped to her knees.
"He's not breathing!" the child's mother screamed. The woman dragged the child up by the arms and began pounding on his back.
"Don't do that!" One of the unshaven men separated from the others and rushed forward. He placed a hand on the frightened mother's shoulder and met her eyes. "Let me have him."
The woman hesitated only a second before relinquishing her son to the dark-haired man. "Please! Save him!"
"I'll do my best," he replied, his voice deep and calm. He gently laid the boy back on the floor. After feeling for a pulse in the boy's neck, he leaned close to listen and look for signs of breathing.
Glancing at Holly, he said, "Watch his chest for me. Tell me if it rises."
Nodding, Holly scooted back to give the man room to work as he angled the boy's head and blew two breaths in the boy's mouth.
Holly shook her head. "I didn't see it move."
The man frowned. "Something's obstructing the airway."
Quickly he moved to straddle the boy's legs and stacked his hands on the child's abdomen. "Come on, sport. Stay with me," he mumbled as he gave five sharp upward thrusts with his palms. Crawling to the boy's side, the dark-haired man did a visual check of the boy's mouth then swept his finger inside. With a deep sigh of relief, he withdrew a piece of hard candy and tossed it aside.
But the boy didn't move, didn't draw a breath.
Pressing his lips in a taut line, the man glanced up and drilled a hard glare at Holly. His sky-blue eyes were clear and intense. "You, the bride. Help me."
Holly blinked, rallying from her fear-based daze. "How?"
"Give him two full breaths in his mouth, five seconds apart, every time I say now."
She nodded her understanding and scrambled closer as the man started chest compressions. Adrenaline spiked her pulse as she watched the man working to save the young boy.
"Now." His clear blue eyes met hers, echoing his command.
Holly bent low and covered the boy's mouth with hers. Blew. Counted five and blew again.
"Good. Just like that." Jerking a nod, he resumed compressions.
Holly studied the boy now. His lips had regained a bit of their color, but he remained unconscious. She glanced up at his panicked and crying mother. "He's going to be okay. I promise."
Why she was so certain, she couldn't say. It was risky to assure the mother when she didn't truly know how this rescue effort would go. But a strange assurance and confidence in the man working on the little boy flowed through her, calming her own frayed nerves.
Holly moved her gaze to Carol, who held a cell phone to her ear. With a look, Holly asked for an update.
"An ambulance is on its way. The operator is still on the line," Carol said softly.
Holly met the man's eyes briefly before dipping her head to give another breath. Count five. Breath.
As she raised her head from the last puff, the boy coughed, gasped in air.
"Tommy!" his mother cried and tried to hug him.
"Give me a minute," the boy's rescuer instructed, sidling between the mother and child. Again he checked the boy's pulse, lifted his eyelids to check his pupils, examined the child's fingernails. "Tommy, can you hear me? Can you talk?"
"I want Mommy," the boy whimpered.
The man smiled, flashing a set of perfect white teeth as he backed up. "She's right here, sport."
Holly dropped back on her heels, her muscles going limp with relief. She stared at the man who'd saved the boy, mulling the inconsistencies in his appearance. While she knew better than to judge anyone by how they looked, little about this man fit the profile of the average homeless client who came to the Community Aid Center. Though his cheeks and chin were covered in a few days' growth of beard like many of the other men the center served, his hair was much cleaner, his beard shorter and his skin healthier. In fact, despite needing a shave and a haircut, the square cut of the man's jaw, sharp angles of the man's cheeks and straight nose gave him an ironically patrician appearance.
"Thank you," she said, laying a hand on his arm. He turned from watching the mother hug her son. "You saved his life."
Again his bright blue eyes burrowed deep with their cool intensity, stirring an odd swirling in her belly. "No. We did. Together. Thank you."
Holly shook her head. "I didn't—"
He wrapped a large hand around hers, and at his touch, the rest of her reply caught in her throat. A warm ripple of sensation skimmed over her. "Yes, you did."
She dropped her gaze to his tanned hand and wet her lips. "Really, you're the one who—" Again her words stalled as she focused on the watch peeking out from under the sleeve of his flannel shirt.
She knew that watch, hadn't seen that watch since the last morning Ryan left for work. That watch had been stolen from her husband the day he'd been attacked, murdered in an abandoned church not far from the Community Aid Center.
Gasping, she jerked a startled frown up to the man as her brother-in-law's words reverberated in her head.
Ryan's killer was most likely a vagrant.
Matt Rankin knew that look well. Disgust. Accusation. Contempt.
The exhilaration of having saved the choking boy evaporated under the icy glare from the center volunteer. When he touched her arm, the beautiful blonde bride who'd helped him resuscitate the boy gaped at his hand, her joy and admiration morphing suddenly into something ugly and cold.
"Where did you get that watch?" she demanded, her tone clipped and accusing. As if he had no right to own something of value.
And maybe he didn't. Maybe he should have sold the watch months ago to help pay for food, his rent, his child support. But he couldn't bring himself to part with the last thing he owned that Jill had given him.
He tamped down the swirl of emotions that still ravaged him when he thought of Jill's death and the terrible repercussions that followed. Keeping his tone even, he met the woman's hard green-eyed stare. "It was a Christmas gift from my wife a few years ago."
"Your wife?" She narrowed her eyes skeptically, as if being down on your luck and scrimping to make even a scant income meant you could never have had a wife and children, a home and career. A life to be proud of.
"Yes, my wife." Matt sighed. He didn't have much to be proud of now, and he couldn't really blame the woman for her snap judgment. In her position, he might think much the same. But the past few months had taught him how close every person was to living on the street.
His golden life had suffered a chain reaction of tragic blows and shattered.
An ambulance arrived, and the crowd of spectators cleared a path as the rescue workers huddled around the boy and his mother, checking the child's vital signs.
Matt inhaled deeply, and looking back at the blonde woman, he pushed to his feet.
He dusted his hands off, then extended one to help the bride to her feet.
She glanced at his proffered hand, hesitated, then let him pull her from the floor.
"I'm sorry. I just… My husband had a watch like that one stolen, and—"
"You thought I'd stolen this one."
She turned away guiltily. "It just startled me to see it. Your watch is just like Ryan's and—" She huffed and smoothed a hand over the skirt of her wedding dress costume. "Never mind." She backed away one step, then forced a tight smile. "Thank you… for helping with Tommy. You saved his life." Her delicate brow furrowed, and she tipped her head. "How… how did you know what to do?"
"Anyone can learn CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. They are valuable skills to have." Yes, he was being evasive, cryptic, not fully forthcoming. But he didn't feel like explaining the whole sordid story of his ignoble downfall—which he'd inevitably have to. When he mentioned his medical degree, his career, the question always followed.
How did a successful doctor end up scavenging a meal from a soup kitchen on Halloween?
"Well, thank you. You saved the day." Her smile was brighter now, more genuine.
Matt's gut kicked. Her smile transformed her already beautiful face to nothing short of breathtaking. Not for the first time, his own ragged appearance left him feeling awkward and embarrassed. He nodded to the woman and turned to make his way through the crowd. He needed air, and the small room at the Community Aid Center had begun feeling cramped, stuffy.
As he stepped out of the building, the crisp autumn breeze nipped at his lungs and bit his cheeks with a sobering reminder that winter was mere weeks away. If he didn't want to freeze at night, he'd have to continue renting his ramshackle room at the Woodgate Inn. Which, in turn, meant he'd have to find a new source of income.
The irony of his situation appalled him. He had a medical degree, had graduated top of his class. But thanks to his appearance, his lack of transportation or a permanent address, he couldn't find a job that paid enough to make his child support payments and also get ahead. The tanked economy didn't help, either. The few available jobs were grabbed up by mill workers who'd been laid off, or clean-cut, white-collar men taking second jobs to cover their mortgages.
Pulling his collar up against the cold wind blowing off the slopes of the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, Matt squared his shoulders and headed down the street. He was through feeling sorry for himself, finished wallowing in his pain and failure.
He wouldn't let the tragic turn of fate defeat him. He had to rebuild his life. For his kids.
He'd pull through this black period somehow and get back on his feet. He wouldn't quit—even if everyone he loved had quit on him.
Tommy's choking had rattled Holly, and seeing the watch, so much like Ryan's, on the man at the center had destroyed her interest in revelry. After making sure Tommy would be all right, Holly had sneaked away from the Halloween party and headed to her truck.
She'd already been giving a few hours each month to the Community Aid Center when Ryan was killed. Knowing one of the people she helped at the center could be responsible for the attack on her husband disturbed Holly deeply. She'd almost quit.
But the evil actions of one person didn't negate the good she was doing or the needs of the children she met at the center. Besides, what if she heard something through her volunteer work that could help the police catch Ryan's killer?
Over the past several months, she'd learned more about the homeless than she'd ever imagined. And many of her conceptions of who the homeless were and why they were on the streets had been blown out of the water. Many of the people she had helped had high school diplomas or professional skills, but medical bills to treat an illness had depleted their bank account. Or they'd been laid off a job and couldn't pay their rent. Or they'd fled an abusive situation and had nowhere to go.