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It's been nearly three months since Leah vanished. How can the FBI still be clueless? What's the matter with you people?" Wendy Goodwin demanded.
"Hush, Wendy." Shelby grabbed her cousin's arm. Throwing an apologetic look at FBI agent Jodie Gilmore, Shelby asked, "Nothing new at all? I thought when I saw you back in town there might be a new lead."
Jodie's eyes held sympathy and understanding. "I'm only here because the home office received a phone tip we thought worth checking into. It didn't pan out. We haven't had a solid new lead since the discovery of Leah's shoe in February at that abandoned house in the swamp."
The slipper hadn't led them to Leah. Instead, it led investigators to uncover and solve a twenty-five-year-old triple murder. One of the victims had been Jodie's mother. Another Loomis woman who had vanished without a trace.
If anyone in the bureau would keep looking for answers, it would be Jodie.
Shelby nodded her thanks. She came by the sheriff's office at least three times a week to check on her friend's case. As the months passed with no new information, the FBI's Missing Persons task force had gone back to New Orleans.
When Shelby saw Jodie today, her hopes had risen, but once again she faced bitter disappointment.
Soon they would call off the search and give Leah up for dead.
"I think it's just criminal you people aren't doing more." Wendy raised her voice in a parting shot.
Shelby dragged her cousin out the door. Her sentiments might be the same as Wendy's, but she could never voice them the way her outspoken cousin did.
Once outside the sheriff's office, Shelby released Wendy. "I want Leah to be found as much as you do, but insulting thepeople looking for her isn't going to help."
Wendy crossed her arms and shivered, although the morning was warm with late March sunshine and rising humidity. "It's just so frightening. How does someone we know vanish? This kind of thing happens only in movies."
"It happens in real life, too, Wendy."
"It doesn't happen to your friend. To someone who attends the same church. To someone who brings her daughter to our library for Story Hour."
Shelby drew Wendy close in a comforting hug. "I know. I'm frustrated, too, but the sheriff's office insists they are doing all they can."
"Do you think she's dead?" Wendy whispered.
Pulling back, Shelby gazed into her cousin's worry-filled blue eyes. With one hand she smoothed back a lock of Wendy's blond hair. "I can't think that way. I have to believe she's alive."
Please, Lord, let it be true for little Sarah's sake.
Wendy rubbed the back of her neck as she admitted, "After the other murders, it's hard to hold on to hope."
"That's why we have to put our faith in God. He's watching over Leah."
Wendy cast a glance around. "I know you're right, but you can't deny this is a scary time. I get up a dozen times at night to make sure the doors and windows are locked. I don't go out after dark. I don't let the kids play outside alone. I look twice at everyone I know and I think, could it be them?"
Depression dragged at Shelby's spirits. "I know. I feel the same way."
"The whole town is on edge. I thought for sure when Vera Peel was arrested two weeks ago for the old murders that she was the killer. Some people are still insisting she is. Dylan Renault and Angelina Loring were both struck over the head and shot in the back, just like the skeletons that were found in that old cellar."
"Vera Peel confessed to killing her husband, Jodie's mother and that poor woman in the gazebo twenty-five years ago, but she has an alibi for the time of Dylan's murder. Besides, Leah's husband wasn't shot in the back."
"But Earl was shot, and it wasn't suicide. Some people are saying"
"I know they're saying Leah killed Earl for the insurance money, that she panicked and skipped town, that she ran off with some unknown lover. None of it is true."
None of it makes sense. Lord, we need Your help. Please keep Leah safe and bring her home to us.
Releasing her cousin, Shelby started toward the crosswalk at the corner of Church Street and Main. Their destination was the restaurant inside the Loomis Hotel. Coffee made with chicory and scalded milk and the mouth-watering beignets at the posh Café Au Lait were a Monday-morning custom the women had enjoyed for the past two years.
Shelby, Wendy and Leah had first chosen the high-class setting to celebrate Shelby's appointment as head librarian at the Loomis Public Library. The women had been starting their work week in the same way ever since.
When Shelby and Leah's high-school friend, Jocelyn Gold, returned to Loomis to open up a practice as a child psychologist, they were quick to include her in their tradition. They'd shared some great times and plenty of laughter together.
Knowing Leah wouldn't be joining them put a damper on what used to be a lighthearted gathering, but sticking to the ritual had become a means of keeping each other's spirits up.
"How can y'all be so sure Leah isn't guilty?" Wendy asked. "We never know what another person is capable of doing."
Shelby didn't hesitate. "Leah wouldn't abandon Sarah. That little girl is everything to her."
"You're right. I'm going crazy with all the uncertainty. Leah couldn't ask for a better friend than you, Shelby."
"I wish that were true. If I'd been a better friend, she might have confided in me. I knew something was bothering her, I just didn't think it was any of my business."
They were almost at their destination when Shelby noticed a motorcycle occupying a parking space in front of the hotel. The custom chrome-and-black machine crouched in the line of sedans and SUVs, looking like a panther among a herd of milk cows.
The leather studded saddlebags over the rear tire conjured up images of life on the road, escape, excitement, daring. All the things Shelby read about in the books at the city library where she worked but had never experienced for herself.
Looking over her shoulder as she pulled open the café door, she couldn't help the wistful tone in her voice as she stepped inside. "I wonder who that belongs to."
At the sound of a man's low rumbling voice, a feeling of electricity raced over her nerve endings. Her head whipped around, and Shelby found herself staring at the zipper of a black leather jacket decorated with the same silver studs as the saddlebags.
Looking higher, she met the owner's dark hooded gaze and recognition hit her like a kick to the stomach.
Patrick Rivers was back in Loomis.
It took Patrick a few seconds to place the petite woman with a cascade of thick red hair swirling about her shoulders. Her light-brown eyes widened and color flooded her cheeks in two perfect circles of berry-bright skin.
Only one woman he remembered in Loomis could blush so sweetly. Chunky, shy Shelby Mason had bloomed into a true Southern rose.
A wry smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. The word chunky no longer applied. Her soft lilac dress with tiny white polka dots accented her feminine curves to perfection.
Her quick indrawn breath and the backward step she took confirmed what he already suspected. She recognized him, too.
"Miss Mason, isn't it?" he asked.
Irritation swept over him at how easily the Louisiana drawl returned to his voice. He'd worked hard to remove any reminders of Loomis from his life, including his accent.
Her hand went to her throat. A flutter of nervousness that she couldn't hide made her fingers tremble. She regarded him with suspicion. Like everyone else in the gloomy city. Anger rose like bitter bile in his mouth.
There was no place like homehome sweet home.
To her credit, Shelby quickly regained her composure. "Mr. Rivers. I heard that your stepfather had passed away. Please accept my condolences."
The pure charm of her lilting voice took him straight back in time. Back ten years to the days when the local college girls had flirted outrageously with a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks because he could throw a football better than anyone in St. Tammany Parish.
Back to the night one spoiled, vain debutante ruined his life.
It didn't matter that he had been innocent of the crime, that the charges had been dropped. Coral Travis had accused him of rape. The stigma stuck to him like the odor of rotting vegetation permeated the black mud of the bayou.
He had tried to face down the rumors, the looks, the mistrust, but in the end leaving had been his only option.
Gritting his teeth against the pain of those memories, he gave Shelby a brief nod. "Thanks, but Dan and I weren't that close."
Did he imagine sympathy filled her eyes before she looked down? He wanted to reach out and lift her chin to be sure. Kindness from anyone in Loomis was a rare thing.
Her long lashes fluttered up as she met his gaze again. The morning sunlight brought out flecks of green in her eyes that he'd never noticed before. Beneath the overpowering aromas of coffee and pastry he caught a subtle hint of her fresh flowery fragrance.
When had the self-effacing little librarian grown to be such a beauty?
Realizing he was blocking the doorway, he stepped aside and allowed her to enter. To his surprise, she didn't rush past him the way her companion did, but paused at his side.
A half smile trembled on her lips. She looked adorably uncertain of the correct way to address an accused rapist. Finally, she managed to ask, "Will you be staying in Loomis long?"
A sharp gasp made him look beyond Shelby to see the architect of his disgrace staring at him in wide-eyed shock.
Coldness settled in his chest and spread through his body. This was exactly the scene he'd dreaded from the minute he knew he was coming back to Loomis.
Of course, it had to happen in front of dozens of witnesses.
Only years of practice at keeping his emotions hidden prevented him from bolting out the door. His indifference might be a veneer, but time and pain had made it thick. He didn't move so much as a muscle.
Coral Travis hadn't changed much in the intervening years. She was still a beautiful woman. Her hair, a lighter shade of blond now, was styled loose about her shoulders. Dressed in a white ensemble, she clung to the arm of a tall handsome blond man in a tailored gray suit. They made a striking couple. Behind them stood five more men in business attire.
Staring at Coral, Patrick saw the shock in her eyes quickly change to fury, then a hard look of calculation develop in their depths. Her gaze shifted to Shelby without softening.
He glanced around the café with its rich dark paneling. High-backed booths edged the room and a dozen tables covered with snowy white cloths filled the rest of the space. Every table was occupied. The hum of conversations stilled. People began staring and whispering to each other.
He recognized some of the faces, all older, all judgmental.
Don't give them the satisfaction of seeing you care.
Deliberately raising his voice, he focused on Shelby. "It's been a pleasure seeing you again, Miss Mason. Let's get together and talk about old times. Remember the football championship?" Bitterness burned like acid on his tongue as he glared at Coral. "More than one game was played that night." He nodded to Shelby. "I'll be in town a week or two unless the sheriff runs me out sooner. Is Bradford Reed still sheriff around here?"
"Yes, he is." Shelby's eyes darted to Coral and back to him. He read her confusion and discomfort. Suddenly, he wished he hadn't used her to take a jab at Coral.
"Things haven't changed much here, have they?" he stated bitterly and loud enough to be overheard by everyone.
Before she could answer, Patrick walked out the door and let it slam shut behind him.
Shelby stood aside as Coral, pausing only to shoot a look of malice at Shelby, left the building followed by her fiancé, Wendell Bixby, and the other members of Wendell's election committee. As the door closed behind them, Shelby stepped to the window and watched them quickly cross the street.
Patrick strolled to his bike, looking like he didn't have a care in the world.
Shelby wasn't exactly sure what had just happened. Somehow, she'd found herself in the cross fire between Patrick and Coral. Talk about uncomfortable.
But then, nothing between Shelby and Coral had been comfortable since the night of Coral's alleged rape. Shelby didn't know the whole story, but she knew enough to wonder if Coral had lied. Onlywhy would she?
Shelby watched Patrick settle astride his motorcycle and pull it upright. She wanted to believe he had been innocent of the charges Coral leveled against him, but only the two of them knew for certain what happened that night.
Studying Patrick, Shelby decided that he had changed a good deal since college. His hair was still a thick sable brown, but he wore it shorter now and there was a touch of gray at his temples. Fine crow's-feet fanned out from the corners of his dark-as-molasses eyes giving him a world-weary look.
Tilting her head slightly, she decided it was more of a world-wary look.
Drawing a pair of aviator sunglasses from his breast pocket, he slipped them on. Shelby's heart skipped a beat or two. His magnetic, bad-boy aura hadn't dimmed a bit over the years. If anything, he was more attractive than ever.
Dressed in a leather jacket, tight faded jeans and black boots, he looked like he had ridden straight off a movie set. He looked like trouble waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting town.
She jumped a fraction when the bike roared to life. After revving the engine, he backed out of the parking space and rode away. Only then did she come out of her mental fog.
"On the contrary, Mr. Rivers," she muttered softly. "Things have changed a great deal in Loomis in the past few months, and none of it for the better."
"Who is he, and how do you know a hunk like that?" Wendy demanded at her elbow, her voice brimming with awe.
Taking in the number of people staring at them, Shelby steered Wendy to the nearest booth where Jocelyn was already waiting for them and watching the exchange with interest.
Jocelyn's recent wedding to FBI agent Sam Pierce had been a bright spot in the otherwise frightening events of the year. Dressed in a beige suit jacket with dark-brown piping, Jocelyn radiated professional confidence and a quiet happiness Shelby envied.
Wendy scooted into the booth beside her. Wearing a purple, flowing print skirt and lacy camisole top under a crocheted multicolored shrug, Wendy radiated Wendy.
"Yes, Shelby," Jocelyn added with a curious smile. "Do tell us who that was."
Shelby slid across the red vinyl bench opposite Jocelyn and Wendy and glanced at her cousin. "You don't remember Patrick Rivers?"
Wendy tipped her head. "Should I?"
"You were two years behind me in school, so maybe you didn't know about him."
A slight frown marred Jocelyn's forehead. "I don't remember him, either."
"You had already moved away," Shelby explained. "He was a junior when I was a freshman at Loomis College. He was the football captain and quarterback. NFL scouts were lining up around the block to watch him."
Wendy's eyes widened with sudden shock. "He's the guy that raped Coral Travis."
Casting Wendy a quelling glance, Shelby leaned forward and spoke quietly. "The charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence."
"Which means he got away with it," Wendy declared. "No wonder she looked like she'd seen a ghost. Do you think there's a connection between Leah's disappearance, the murders and his sudden return?"
Shaking her head, Shelby lifted a laminated menu from the metal holder at the end of the table. "I don't see how. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that he's here now. His stepfather died a few weeks ago."
Wendy looked unconvinced. "He could be back to get his revenge. Did y'all see the cold way he looked at Coral? First a murderer loose in town and now a rapist. I'm telling you, Shelby Sue, I have no idea what this town is coming to. I feel like locking myself in the house and swallowing the key.