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Th e warning shriek of a siren accompanied a blur of Missouri roadside shrubs and the flash of red-blue-red in Sarah Russell's rearview mirror. She dabbed at her wet face with the cuff of her sleeve. Another blast of sound and flash of lights near her back bumper told her she was busted. "Oh, sure," she muttered. "Don't go after the real speeders. Pick on me."
All she needed right now, atop everything else, was public humiliationit would be bad enough when the whole Russell family found out she'd lost Emma after having custody for only three weeks. And she hadn't been speeding. True, squealing tire rubber on the road was never a good idea, and she should have known better than to attempt highway traffic while fighting tears that flowed faster than her speedometer, but still
With a wet sniffle, she pulled to the shoulder of Highway 60. A few more seconds and she'd have been out of the Sikeston city limits and on her way toward Jolly Mill.
She closed her eyes and focused on breathing deeply. The word murder reverberated through her mind in time with her heartbeat. Impossible. Couldn't be! But what if it was true? Innocent, trusting sixteen-year-old Emma was headed toward disaster in more ways than one.
Sarah fumbled in her purse for a tissue and was blowing her nose when a uniformed figure stepped from the cruiser behind her. She lowered the window, winced at the squeak she'd never had repaired and looked upinto the face of her cousin, John Fred Russell.
"Oh, John." She nearly burst into fresh tears at the sight of the man who'd been like a brother since her family moved here. Among all the Russell cousins, John was her favorite. A person couldn't spit on the sidewalk in this town without the whole Russell clan hearing about it, but John had kept silent for years about her most devastating secret. He was a true man.
"Sarah Fey Russell," he muttered with a voice of resignation.
"John, this isn't a good time. Please, just let me go. Didn't you recognize my car?"
"All I saw was a set of taillights weaving back and forth on the road like a flag in a high wind," he drawled, wiggling his hand in the air. "But yes, when you finally stopped, I knew it was you."
A pickup truck sped past. He glanced toward the receding vehicle then sighed and returned his attention to her. "I have to ask, of course, so just tell me you haven't suddenly taken up drinking and driving for recreation." Again, the dry tone, his southeastern Missouri accent as pronounced as usual. His typical expression of serenity was firmly in place, which meant he knew she wouldn't need to breathe into a tube.
She shook her head, sniffed and dabbed at a few stray tears with her sleeve.
He leaned over and peered at her face more closely. "Hey, cuz." His tone softened. "You crying? What's wrong?"
He'd been a rock since Mom and Dad died three weeks ago . Could Emma be right? Was it possible their deaths weren't just a tragic accident? "I've already blown the guardianship."
"I've lost Emma."
Sarah reached toward the passenger seat for the printout of the long email she'd found after arriving home from her final, long day of teachers' meetings to end the school year.
He took the sheet and squinted. "Wow. Save me some time. Give me the short version."
"She's driving across the state to Jolly Mill to investigate a rumor that the explosion that killed Mom and Dad was intentional."
John hunkered down, eyes wide. "Someone thinks your parents were murdered?"
More tears surfaced as Sarah's throat threatened to close. It was too fresh. Only three weeks since her world had shattered. "Nick Tyler suspects something. He's Aunt Peg's son."
"She was the other person killed in the first explosion. You've mentioned Nick. You two were best buds when you lived there, right?"
Sarah hesitated. If John only knew. And perhaps he should. "If Nick suspects something, then I believe there's something to suspect." She held up Emma's note. "There was another explosion the next day and another woman dieda nurse in an infirmary not far from the conference center where Mom and Dad and Aunt Peg were killed."
John let out a long, low whistle. "There's no police force in Jolly Mill."
"That's probably why Nick's staying with his dad for a while, just to keep an eye on things."
"If that's where Emma's going, will she be safe there?"
Sarah leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, trying not to think about it. "Her email to me was time-stamped two-thirteen. If she left soon after, she could be there by now."
He looked at his watch. "Seven now. Yep, she could be." He blew out a puff of air. "What on earth did that girl think there was to investigate?"
"You know Emma. She wants to be a police officer like her cousin John, so it's your fault."
"You've tried calling her, of course."
"She's not answering her cell."
Another car sped past, and John grimaced. "Wish we weren't already two people short tonight. I should go with you. Have you spoken with Nick?"
"All he and I have exchanged since our family moved away from there are sympathy notes after the explosion. Emma spoke with him on the phone."
"Well, okay, but he is a son grieving the death of his mother. Even the most solid people I know can go a little off-kilter when they're reeling from that kind of shock."
"Two explosions a day apart, John. That's not too much of a stretch. And, John, there's more." Sarah hesitated, closing her eyes. "Please promise this doesn't go anywhere."
He leaned forward, elbows resting on the car door until he was eye level with Sarah. "How much worse can it get?"
"I know under the circumstances this shouldn't be an issue, but I'm pretty sure he's Emma's father."
There was a long moment of silent shock that froze her cousin's face like a statue. "What do you mean you're pretty sure?"
"There was a going-away party for Shelby and me. Someone spiked the soda with ecstasy right there under the guard of chaperones and everything. Anyway, that night's a huge blur, but"
John interrupted with a groan. "It's okay, I don't need the details. I'd like to wring the neck of the scum who did that to a bunch of innocent kids. Does Nick know she's his?"
Sarah closed her eyes and shook her head, allowing the impact of her past to hit her full force. All these years, at the urging of her parents, she'd been encouraged to treat Emma like her surprise baby sister, born just after Sarah and her twin, Shelby, turned seventeen. They never knew she suspected that Nick was the one. Who else could it have been? How her family had sacrificed for her wild, childish heart and for someone's nasty practical joke.
"You know how it was. Mom and Dad believed if they didn't adopt her I wouldn't go to college, wouldn't have the chance Shelby had. I have nothing to go on but memories of seeking Nick out at the partythey're fuzzy, at best. Everyone found out about the spiked soda, so my parents always knew I'd been caught up in something I had no control over."
"So you can't be sure it was him."
"He was the only one I'd have even gotten close to. He was the only one. Ever. She looks like him."
John sighed. "This one's a doozy, Sarah Fey, I've gotta tell you."
"I'm worried about Emma. She's still such a little girl in so many ways. It's partially my fault she's been so sheltered. I spent so much time with her"
"You're good for her, Sarah. You practically gave up dating. In fact, I think she was smothered, if you ask me."
"Didn't ask." Still, his words soothed her. "So, you letting me go? My tire went off the shoulder, that's all. I'm fine." Jolly Mill, a five hour drive from Sikeston, seemed as far away as the moon right now. "If Emma reaches Nick and he sees the family resemblance in person"
"You can't stop her now." He patted her arm. "Maybe it's time she knew"
"Don't even say it."
"As her sister, you may not be able to control her, but if she knows you're her birth mother and that you love her like a mother loves a child"
"That's the last thing she needs. You know how tender her heart is. The shock would break it all over again, especially with this question about murder hanging in the air."
"If not now"
Sarah held a hand up. "I've been living this fiction since I was her age. For her sake I have to keep it up at least until she's strong enough to handle reality again."
John gave a heavy sigh. "At least let me find Nick's number and call him for you."
That was tempting. Talking to Nick after all these years and with such a connection hanging between them from their pastand one he knew nothing aboutwould be hard. But right now Emma's safety was Sarah's only concern. "I'll call him. We were once the best of friends. Can you find the number for Edward Tyler for me?"
John gave her a salute and quickstepped back to the cruiser as Sarah allowed her thoughts to dwell on Nicksomething she'd stopped doing when she heard of his marriage seven years agoand continued after Mom shared that his wife divorced him. Had it really been nearly seventeen years since she'd seen Nick? She'd cried most of the way across the state the day they left Jolly Mill. She'd had no reason to believe that she carried a child inside her Nick's child. It had to be. The very reason she'd sought Nick out that night was to tell him how she really felt about him, that their friendship had blossomed into something so much more powerful .
Over the years, she'd often imagined Nick's dark, soul-filled eyes in his daughter's face. She'd also seen his and his father's cleft chin. Hadn't she? Would they see their own features in Emma when she showed up on their front porch? Mom had sent Aunt Peg pictures of all of them throughout the years, but Nick had left Jolly Mill for pre-med as soon as he graduated. Sarah's only chance to get through this with no one being the wiser was that Nick couldn't possibly recall that long-ago night any better than she didor even as well as she did.
John returned with a slip of paper and handed it to her. "Don't talk on the phone while you're driving. I saw what you're capable of tonight."
She thanked him and reached down for the automatic window control.
"Wait, did you log on to Emma's email account, check her activity?"
"That was always Dad's job. I've tried to respect her privacy."
"My turn, then. I still have a key to the house."
"She keeps her password info taped under the lip of her desk, but she keeps her email up on the home computer, so it's not hard to log on."
"If you're gonna traipse off after Emma, the least I can do is search around and see if I can't fill in some gaps for you. Got your cell phone charged?"
What would she do without John? "I even brought my car charger. Proud of me?"
He grinned at last, then leaned in and kissed her cheek. "I've got your back, cuz. Watch for deer and call me when you get there." He straightened and stretched. "Guess I'll overlook your poor driving skills this time, but beware of weekenders. That can be a bear, even on the four-lane."
He'd pulled away in his cruiser before she edged back onto the road. This was not the time to resume panic mode, and she couldn't imagine how this night could get any worse.
Nicolas Tyler slid the hasp one more time along the riding mower's blade, sharpening it to perfection. He was rotating to the next cutting edge when the wall phone rang loudly enough for the neighbors to go deaf. His hand jerked, and the fleshy part of his right thumb encountered the newly sharpened blade.
It was a clean cut, and while the pain of it registered he couldn't help a buzz of pride at the quality of his work as he watched blood seep from the wound. He winced at the continued ringing of the phone. Should've chosen lawn-mower maintenance as his primary profession twelve years ago and avoided all the frustration of education, more education, sleepless residency, divorce, frivolous lawsuits. He preferred the landscaping business to family practice for now, and solitude to marriage to a cheater.
He glared at the phone as the ringing persisted. Voice mail was turned off; everyone knew Dad's cell number. Why did Dad keep this phone out here, anyway? Didn't a guy deserve some time to himself? But then, Dad wasn't a recluse. Nick had been the one to morph to introversion when he received the notification of a frivolous malpractice lawsuit. Things had gone downhill from there.
He'd disconnected the doorbell after Chloe left and discontinued the landline at his home in Rockford, Illinois, only a few weeks before the explosion.
The ringing stopped and Nick relaxed. Dad had his cell phone with him in case someone wanted to contact him, but he was on leave from the church. A pastor couldn't lead his flock when he was driven to his knees with grief; his church should understand that. Nick could think of no one he wanted to talk to. The neighbors knew he wasn't much of a socializer these days.
He reached for the first-aid kit in its cubicle above the work stand. A little peroxide, gauze and tape would take care of this.
He was pouring medicine into his wound when the phone jangled again. He jumped, splattering the liquid in a three foot radius and giving the garage floor an expensive cleansing. Peroxide bubbled on his hand, the gauze hovering over his thumb, tape tangling in his arm hair. With a yank and a grunt, he tore away the tape and lost a considerable amount of arm hair. And women waxed. Go figure.
He pulled out another strip of tape, secured the bandage and replaced the top on the peroxide bottle before strolling toward the phone. Maybe it was Dad. One never knew when he might run into trouble with that old pickup truck.
A quick check of the incoming number sent a shiver down Nick's spine as it had the last time he'd answered a call from Emma Russellthe name Mark Russell flashed on the tiny screen. As if he was receiving a message from a dead man.
For that fraction of a second, as before, Nick's mind ricocheted through the grief, blackness and shock. Then he answered the phone, fully expecting to hear young Emma's voice again. She'd called him and emailed him after he'd sent the girls flowers and a sympathy card, and she'd called again today. The kid had an uncanny sense of compassion for one so young. It surprised him that he didn't mind talking to her.
He hesitated. Not Emma. Too mature for a sixteen-year-old. He found his voice, but only barely. "Is this Sarah?"
For a moment, there was no reply. Sarah was the quiet one, the twin who'd always remained in the shadows at her own insistence. Though he hadn't heard her voice for many years, he recalled the beautiful script on her sympathy card after the tragedy.
"I'm sorry to bother you." Her voice continued to wobble.