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"Your daddy is dead."
Tawny-Lynn gripped the phone with sweaty palms, then sank onto the bench in her garden. The roses that she'd groomed and loved so much suddenly smelled sickly sweet.
"Did you hear me, Tawny-Lynn?"
She nodded numbly, fighting the bitter memories assaulting her, then realized her father's lawyer Bentley Bannister couldn't see her, so she muttered a quiet yes.
But the memories crashed back. The bus accident. The fire. The screams. Then half the team was dead.
Somehow she'd survived, although she had no idea how. She'd lost time when she'd blacked out. Couldn't remember what had happened after the fire broke out.
But when she'd woken up, her sister and her friend Ruth were gone.
She'd been terrified they were dead. But the police had never found their bodies.
They had escaped somehow. Although half of Camden Crossing thought they'd fallen to foul play, that the accident hadn't been an accident. That a predator had caused the crash, then abducted Peyton and Ruth.
Just like a predator had taken two girls a year before that from a neighboring town.
Bannister cleared his throat, his voice gruff. "He was sick for a while, but I guess you knew that already."
No, she didn't. But then again, she wasn't surprised. His drinking and the two-pack-a-day cigarette habit had to have caught up with him at some point.
"Anyway, I suppose you'll want to be here to oversee the memorial service."
"No, go ahead with that," Tawny-Lynn said. Her father wouldn't have wanted her to come.
Wouldn't have wanted her near him.
Like everyone else in town, he'd blamed her. If she'd remembered more, seen what had happened, they might have been able to find Peyton and Ruth.
"Are you sure? He was your father, Tawny-Lynn."
"My father hated me after Peyton went missing," Tawny-Lynn said bluntly.
"Sugar, he was upset"
"Don't defend him," she said. "I left Camden Crossing and him behind years ago." Although the crash and screams had followed her, still haunted her in her dreams.
A tense heartbeat passed. "All right. But the ranch Well, White Forks is yours now."
The ranch. God She bowed her head and inhaled deep breaths. The familiar panic attack was threatening. She had to ward it off.
"You will come back and take care of the ranch, won't you?"
Take care of it as in live there? No way.
She massaged her temple, a migraine threatening. Just the thought of returning to the town that hated her made her feel ill.
"Just hang a for-sale sign in the yard." His breath wheezed out, reminding her that he was a heavy smoker, too. "About the ranch. Your father let it go the last few years. I don't think you'll get anything for it unless you do some upkeep."
Tawny-Lynn glanced around her small, cozy apartment. It was nestled in Austin, a city big enough to support businesses. A city where no one knew her and where she could get lost in the crowd.
Where no one hated her for the past.
The last thing she wanted to do was have to revisit the house where her life had fallen apart.
But her conversation with her accountant about her new landscape business echoed in her head, and she realized that selling the property could provide the money she needed to make her business a success.
She had to go back and clean up the ranch, then sell it.
Then she'd finally be done with Camden Crossing and the people in it for good.
Sheriff Chaz Camden glanced at the missing-persons report that had just come in over the fax. Another young girl, barely eighteen. Gone.
Vanished from a town in New Mexico in the middle of the night. A runaway or a kidnapping?
He studied the picture, his gut knotting. She was a brunette like his sister, Ruth, had been. Same innocent smile. Her life ahead of her.
And according to her parents, a happy well-adjusted teenager who planned to attend college. A girl who never came home after her curfew.
They thought someone had kidnapped her just as he'd suspected someone had abducted Ruth and Peyton after that horrendous bus crash.
Not that New Mexico was close enough to Camden Crossing, Texas, that he thought it was the same sicko.
But close enough to remind him of the tragedy that had torn his family apart.
The door to the sheriff's office burst open, and he frowned as his father walked in. Gerome Camden, a banker and astute businessman, owned half the town and had raised him with an iron fist. The two of them had tangled when he was growing up, but Ruth had been his father's pet, and it had nearly killed him when she'd disappeared.
"We need to talk," his dad said without preamble.
Chaz shoved the flier about the missing girl beneath a stack of folders, knowing it would trigger one of his father's tirades. Although judging from the scowl on his aging face, he was already upset about something.
Chaz leaned back in his chair. "What is it, Dad?"
"Tawny-Lynn Boulder is back in town."
Chaz stifled a reaction. "Really? I heard she didn't want a memorial service for her father."
The gray streaks in his father's hair glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window. "Who could blame her? Eugene Boulder was a common drunk."
"Guess that's how he dealt with Peyton going missing."
Unlike his father who'd just turned plain mean. Although he'd heard Boulder had been a mean drunk.
"Don't make excuses for that bastard. If Tawny-Lynn hadn't faked that amnesia, we might have found Ruth a long time ago."
Chaz started to point out for the hundredth time that the doctors said the amnesia was real, but his father didn't give him time.
"Bannister handled the will. The ranch is hers."
Chaz sighed and tapped his foot under the desk. "That's no surprise. Tawny-Lynn was his only living relative. It makes sense he'd leave her White Forks."
His father's cheeks reddened as he leaned forward on the desk, his anger gaining steam. "You need to make sure she doesn't stay. This town barely survived that girl years ago. We don't need her here as a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened in Camden Crossing."
Chaz had heard enough. He stood slowly, determined to control the anger building inside him. Just because his father was a big shot in Camden Crossing, he refused to let him push him around.
"Dad, I'm the sheriff, not your personal peon." His father opened his mouth, his hands balling into fists, but Chaz motioned him to hear him out. "My job is to protect the citizens of this town."
"That's what I'm saying"
"No, it's not. You all ran roughshod over a sixteen-year-old girl who was traumatized and confused. And now you want me to make her leave town?" He slammed his own fist on the desk. "For God's sake, Tawny-Lynn lost her sister that day. She was suffering, too."
She'd been injured, although someone had pulled her free from the fire just before the bus had exploded, taking the driver and three other classmates' lives. The other teammates would have probably died, too, if they'd ridden the bus.
At least they'd speculated that someone had rescued Tawny-Lynn. But no one knew who'd saved her.
And no one else had survived. So how had she escaped?
"She knew more than she was telling," his father bellowed. "And no one wants her here now."
An image of a skinny, teenage girl with wheat-colored hair and enormous green eyes taunted him. Tawny-Lynn had lost her mother when she was three, had adored her sister, Peyton, and suffered her father's abuse.
"You don't know that she even wants to stay. She probably has a life somewhere else. But if she does decide to live at White Forks, that's her right."
"She doesn't give a flying fig about that property or this town. Else she wouldn't have run the way she did."
"She went to college, Dad. Besides, you could hardly blame her for leaving," Chaz said. "No one here seemed to care about her."
"You listen to me, Chaz," his father said as if Chaz were still twelve years old. "I'm not just speaking for myself. I've discussed this with the town council."
Two of the members who'd also lost girls that day served on the council now.
"That ranch is run-down," his father continued. "Just pay her a visit and tell her to sell it. Hell, I'll buy the damn property from her just to force her out."
Chaz couldn't believe that his father was so bitter. That bitterness had festered inside and turned him into a different man.
And not in a good way.
"You want me to go see her and write her a check myself?"
Chaz gritted his teeth. "No, I'll talk to her. But" He gave his father a stern look. "I'm not going to run her off. I'll just ask her what her plans are. For all we know, she's here to hang a for-sale sign and you're in an uproar for nothing."
His father wiped a bead of perspiration from his neck. "Let me know." He strode to the door, but paused with one hand on the doorknob. "And remember what I said. If you don't get rid of her, I will."
Chaz narrowed his eyes. "That sounds like a threat, Dad."
His father shrugged. "Just thinking about the town."
He couldn't believe his father had held on to his anger for so long. "Well, don't. Leave her alone and let me do my job."
In fact, he would pay Tawny-Lynn a visit. Not to harass her, but to find out if she'd remembered anything else about the day of the crash.
Something that might help him find out what happened to their sisters.
Tawny-Lynn shivered as she climbed from her SUV and surveyed White Forks. The ranch consisted of fifty acres, just a small parcel of the original two hundred acres that had been used to breed livestock.
But her father had sold it off to make ends meet long ago, and now the barns and stables were broken down and rotting. The chicken coop had been ripped apart in a storm. The roof needed new shingles, and the grass had withered and diedonly tiny patches of green poking through the dry ground.
Spring was fading into summer, the weeds choking the yard and climbing near the front porch. The big white farmhouse that she'd loved as a little girl needed painting, the porch was sagging and the shutters hung askew as if a storm had tried to rip them from the frame of the house.
As though the life had been ripped from it the day Peyton had gone missing.
Maybe beforewhen her mother had died. Although she hardly remembered her. She was three, Peyton five.
Their father's depression and drinking had started then and had grown worse over the years.
Somewhere she heard a dog barking, and figured it had to be a stray.
A breeze stirred the leaves on the trees, echoing with voices from the past, and sending the tire swing swaying. Images of her and Peyton playing in the swing, laughing and squealing, flashed back. Snippets of other memories followed like a movie trailerthe two of them chasing the mutt they'd called Bitsy. Picking wildflowers and using them for bows in their hair.
Gathering fresh eggs from Barb and Jean, the two chickens they'd named after their favorite elementary school teachers.
Then her teenage years where she and Peyton had grown apart. Peyton and Ruth Camden had been the pretty girls, into boys, when she'd been a knobby-kneed, awkward shy tomboy.
She'd felt left out.
Then the bus crashed, and Peyton and Ruth were both gone. And her father and the entire town blamed her.
Willing away the anguish and guilt clawing at her, Tawny-Lynn started toward the house. But an engine rumbled from the dirt drive leading into the ranch, and she whipped her head around, alarmed as the sheriff's car rolled in and came to a stop.
Had the town already heard she was back and sent the sheriff to run her off?
They were pulling out all the punches before she even set foot in the house.
The sheriff cut the engine, then opened the door and a long, big body unfolded itself from the driver's side. Thick dark hair capped a tanned, chiseled face. Broad shoulders stretched tight in the man's uniform, and he removed sunglasses to reveal dark, piercing eyes beneath the brim of his Stetson.
Eyes that skated over her with a deep frown.
Her heart stuttered when she realized who the man was.
Ruth's brother and the boy she'd had a crush on seven years ago. The boy whose family had despised her and blamed her for their loss.
The boy who'd visited her in the hospital and tried to push her to remember like everyone else.
Chaz hadn't been to White Forks in years and was shocked at its dilapidated condition.
He was even more stunned at how much Tawny-Lynn had changed.
The wheat-colored hair was still the same, although longer and wavier than he remembered. And those grass-green eyes were just as vivid and haunted.
But the skinny teenager had developed some womanly curves that would make a man's mouth water.
"Hello, Tawny-Lynn." Damn, his voice sounded hoarse. Rough with desire. Something he hadn't felt in way too long.
And something he'd never felt for this girl er woman. She shaded her eyes with her hand. "You're sheriff now?"
He gave a clipped nod. He hadn't planned on law enforcement work, but his sister's disappearance had triggered his interest. He'd wanted to find her, and it seemed the best way.
"So the town sent you to run me off?"
She had no idea how close to the truth she was.
"I just heard you were here. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Don't pretend that your family and mine were friends, Chaz. I know how the town and the Camdens feel about me." She gestured to his car. "So you can go back and report that I'm here only to clean up this place so I can put it on the market. I don't intend to stick around."
Chaz heard the anger and hurt in her voice and also recognized underlying guilt. God knows, he'd blamed himself enough.
He was Ruth's big brother. He should have been able to keep her safe.
If only he'd been closer to his sister, known what was going on in her head. Some folks thought she and Peyton had run off together, maybe with boys they'd met somewhere.
But others believed they'd been kidnapped.
Tawny-Lynn turned to her SUV, raised the trunk door and reached for her suitcase. He automatically reached for it himself, and their hands touched. A frisson of something sparked between them, taking him off guard.
She must have felt it, too, because her eyes widened in alarm. "I can handle it, Chaz."
"Tawny-Lynn," he said, his voice gruff.
Her shoulders tensed. "What?"
What could he say? "I'm sorry for the way things went down back then."
Anguish flickered on her face before she masked it. "Everyone was hurting, Chaz. Grieving. In shock."
The fact that she was making excuses for the way people treated her proved she was compassionate. Still, she'd been wronged, and obviously hadn't overcome that pain.
"Did you ever remember anything else?" he asked, then immediately regretted pushing her when she dropped the suitcase and grabbed the handle.
"No. If I did, don't you think I would have told someone?"
That was the question that plagued him. Some speculated that she'd helped Ruth and Peyton run away, while others believed she'd seen the kidnapper and kept quiet out of fear.
Of course, Dr. Riggins said she had amnesia caused from the accident.
So if she had seen the kidnapper, the memory was locked in her head.