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Murderer's kid! Murderer's kid! Murderer's kid!
The taunts reverberated inside Dylan Ledger's brain as he approached the Mustang Run Elementary School. Seventeen years after his father's conviction, distant echoes of the mocking still tied knots in his stomach.
Or maybe it was the significance of the day that brought the old rancor home to roost. His father's homecoming. The murderer's return to the scene of the crime, as one radio news announcer had so bluntly put it.
Dylan slowed and stared out the window of his truck. The flagpole was topped with the American colors, and just below that the Lone Star State banner waved in the gentle breeze. Cows grazed the fence line that kept them off the playground.
Kids were filing out of the building to board the yellow school buses that had lined up in front of the building. It was late May, but apparently classes were still in session.
Cars formed another line, mothers waiting to take their children home. Memories flooded his mind. He and his brothers had waited in that line on the fatal day eighteen years ago this September. His mother had never come.
He grimaced and pushed the memories back to the dark crevices of his mind, the way he'd learned to do years ago.
Only now that he was back in the town where his life had been ripped apart, he realized he wasn't nearly as detached from the past horrors as he'd thought. Even worse, he wasn't sure why he'd come back or what he really hoped to gain from this.
The traffic light in front of the school turned red. His gaze drifted to a woman who'd just stepped from her vehicle and was waving frantically, probably trying to get the attention of her kid. The woman's hair was so red it looked like fire in the bright sunlight.
She turned his way for a second. His gaze was riveted on her, not only because she was a knockout. She reminded him of someone, though he had no idea whom.
The light turned green. He lowered the truck's window as he drove slowly through the town and then turned onto the narrow dirt road that led to the family ranch. The odors of earth, grass and even the occasional whiff of manure were a welcome change from the smells of car exhaust and fish from the open market a few steps from his tiny apartment back in Boston.
Rolling hills stretched in all directions as far as he could see. A grouping of magnificent horses stood in a fenced pasture, mingling with a few young colts. A cluster of persimmon trees gave shade to some longhorns. A dog barked in the distance, and a flock of coal-black crows cawed noisily from their perch atop a weathered gate. In a few miles he'd be home.
Who was he kidding? He had no real home. Not in Texas and certainly not back in Boston where he'd never really fit in.
A tractor bounced and rumbled along the road in front of him. Dylan slowed. The driver of the tractor pulled to the edge of the road and gave a two-fingered wave as Dylan passed him.
A minute or two later, a red Jeep Wrangler bore down on him from behind, passing the tractor and riding the tail of Dylan's truck for a minute before passing him, as well. The driver of the vehicle appeared to have a cell phone glued to her ear. He couldn't be sure due to the mass of wild, red curls that tumbled to her shoulders.
Same hair. Same vehicle. It had to be the woman who'd captured his attention at the school, but there was no child in the Jeep. Her car disappeared around the next curve. She was in a damn big hurry to get somewhere.
Another vehicle came up behind him, chased Dylan's bumper around a curve and then passed him. The van had the name of an Austin TV channel emblazoned on the door. It hit Dylan then that they were rushing to the same place he was heading. The media were once again gathering at the Ledger ranch with teeth bared.
Fury burned in Dylan's veins as he drove the rest of the way. Did the media never have the decency to just back off?
The metal gate was propped open. The wheels of his truck rattled over the cattle gap, and he kept driving. There was no need to latch the hook; the varmints were already inside.
A sense of gruesome déjà vu attacked him as he drove the quarter of a mile to the house. But he wasn't a kid any longer. He'd handle whatever came his way.
Collette McGuire gave up on finding a decent parking spot and left her Jeep in a grassy area just north of the house. She grabbed her camera, then pushed through the dozen or so reporters and photographers who were clumped around the front door of the Ledger ranch house.
A lot like vultures, she thought, guilt surfacing that she was one of them.
She shivered and looked around her, always wary, hating the unfamiliar fear that had crawled inside her over the past few weeks.
"There you are. I've been looking all over for you."
She turned to find her friend, Eleanor Baker, maneuvering through the restless reporters and heading her way.
"Thanks for answering my SOS," Eleanor said.
"Next time could you give me a little more notice? I had already told Alma I'd pick up Georgia from school on my way home and take her shopping. Her eleventh birthday is this weekend."
"Your niece is already eleven?"
"Yes. Can you believe it?"
"Not really." Eleanor glanced around. "Where is she?"
"I got to the school in time to have her catch the bus. I postponed the shopping trip."
"You can take her when we're through."
"There won't be time. I'm working a wedding tonight. Georgia is not happy. Both you and Melinda owe me big-time."
"Get me some great shots of Troy Ledger arriving at the little house of horrors and we'll both be in your debt."
"So the infamous Mr. Ledger hasn't arrived yet?"
"No sign of him, but according to reports of when he left the prison, he could drive up any minute."
"What happened to Melinda?"
"She's on assignment in Austin for her real boss. You know, the guy who actually pays her. She thought she'd be back in time to help me out, but got stuck in traffic."
"So that's why I got drafted."
"Which reminds me, do you mind if I camp out at your place tonight? I have an interview scheduled with a developer just outside Mustang Run at an ungodly hour in the morning."
"You want my house and my expertise with the camera? That will cost you," Collette teased.
"Let's hope this turns out to be worth it."
"Take the left side of my garage tonight. I'll park on the right."
"I remember. You know, you may actually be better at this assignment than Melinda."
"Not likely. Ghosts are not within my area of expertise," said Collette.
"No, but you're local. That should be worth something. Pictures of Troy Ledger inside the haunted house would catapult Beyond the Grave to the hottest paranormal magazine on the racks. And then I could actually pay Melinda—and myself."
"Local or not, fat chance I'll get inside that house. I'll be lucky if I get a shot of him entering the door."
"Then I guess Melinda and I will be forced to break in the house the first time Troy Ledger leaves."
Collette covered her ears. "Don't confess planned illegalities to me. I'm the sheriff's daughter."
"Like you'd turn us in to him. You barely speak to the man."
"Yes, and let's keep it that way."
"Speaking of illegalities, are you still getting calls from that weirdo?"
"Occasionally. The calls are pretty lame, but they're starting to get to me."
"Sic the sheriff on him."
"I don't know what he could do since the guy only spouts harmless utterances of devotion. What are you hoping to get today for the article?" Collette asked, changing the subject.
"I'm thinking the tag will be 'Troy Ledger returns to the house that drove him to murder,'" Eleanor said, holding up her hands as if framing the article.
"Last I heard, he was still claiming his innocence. And he was released from prison." Collette removed her camera from the case and adjusted the lens.
"Sure, but released on a technicality," Eleanor countered.
"The prison psychiatrist interviewed on the morning news claimed Troy Ledger has never shown one sign of violent behavior since his conviction. She said she's certain of his mental stability and even went so far as to say that she wouldn't hesitate to trust him with her own son."
"Shrinks, what do they know?" Eleanor glanced at her watch. "Do you think he killed his wife?"
"My opinion doesn't count for much. I was ten at the time."
"Your dad must think he's guilty. He arrested him." Eleanor stretched for a better look as a commotion ensued at the back of the crowd.
A black pickup truck approached, driving up to the front door and sending the reporters who'd gathered there flying to get out of the way. A sexy hunk of a man in boots, worn jeans and a Western hat climbed out, a man who was decades too young to be Troy Ledger.
He looked around and shook his head before stamping to the door. Once there, he pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and poked one into the lock.
"Holy Smoley," Eleanor said lustfully. "I'd sleep with
\ghosts any night as long as that cowboy was in the bed with us. Do you know him?"
"He could be one of Troy Ledger's sons. I think he had four."
"Five," Eleanor corrected. "Dakota, Tyler, Dylan, Sean and Wyatt."
"You've done your homework."
"And a couple of major investigative articles on the crime. FYI, I think Troy Ledger is as guilty as sin and I renege on any offer to sleep with one of his sons, not even if it guaranteed me a picture of ghosts."
Collette aimed and started shooting, still looking for something familiar to help her identify the stranger. She'd known a few of Troy Ledger's sons, but that was years ago when they were mere boys.
The guy pushed open the door but didn't go inside. Instead he scanned the crowd as if looking for someone. Flashbulbs popped, and he blinked and squinted in defense. Reporters started yelling questions and trying to stick mikes in his face.
"Are you a relative of Troy Ledger?"
"Is Troy coming back to the ranch?"
"Will he move back to Mustang Run?"
The cowboy put up a hand as if to quiet the group. Amazingly, they obliged him, though Collette was certain the cooperation wouldn't last long unless he gave them something they wanted.
"You're trespassing," he said. "And looking for a story that was milked dry seventeen years ago."
"Who are you?" a reporter yelled from the back of the group.
"Dylan Ledger, son of the convicted murderer." He tipped his hat as if mocking them and propped a hand on the door frame.
Dylan. She remembered him more than the others. He had been a year ahead of her and had ridden the same bus to school and back. Even then he'd been cute, but he'd aged to perfection.
Someone pushed a mike into his face. "Have you forgiven your father for killing your mother?"
"My relationship with my father is none of your business."
"Is your father going to live here on Willow Creek Ranch?"
"I have no idea what my father's plans are for the future. End of story, so you may as well go out and find yourselves some real news."
He scanned the crowd again. When his gaze fixed, Collette was certain that he was looking right at her. She felt the impact of his stare right down to her toes, a kind of heated awareness that set her on edge.
Eleanor poked her in the ribs with her elbow. "He recognizes you."
"No way. I was scrawny and wore braces when he saw me last."
"And now you're gorgeous and you've acquired breasts. You've got his attention. Ask him a question."
"I'm a photographer, not a reporter."
"He doesn't know that." She took Collette's free hand and waved it in the air. "Ask him if he thinks the house is haunted."
Again, Dylan stared straight at Collette. "I'll grant one interview," he conceded, as if it were an afterthought. "In private. The redhead in the jeans and yellow shirt," he said, pointing at Collette.
Eleanor slapped her on the back and pushed her forward. "Go get 'em, girl. But don't forget the pictures. And be careful."
Collette panicked. She didn't represent a legitimate news organization, and she'd never conducted a real interview. She was terrific at what she did, but that was photography, usually for weddings or at least happy family occasions.
Eleanor gave her another shove. "What are you waiting on?"
Collette gave up and pushed her way through the crowd. Some reporters moved out of her way to make it easier for her. A few guys deliberately blocked her path, and two made sexist comments about her looks doing her work for her.
She had a couple of words for them, too, but she managed enough restraint to keep them to herself. When she reached Dylan, he escorted her inside and closed and locked the door behind them. Her stomach rolled, though she couldn't blame the uneasiness on the house's aura. It looked and felt like any other sprawling ranch house, except for the musty odors that came from years of being closed off from life, wind and sun.
Dylan's hand brushed the back of a worn leather couch as he walked past it. "At least the air conditioner works."
And worked well, she noted. The house was pleasantly cool and free of dust and the myriad spiderwebs that would have given it a true haunted look. Someone had obviously readied the place for Troy Ledger's arrival.
Dylan walked to the kitchen. She followed him.
He opened what appeared to be a new refrigerator. "There are soft drinks, bottled water and beer," he said. "What's your pleasure?"
"Water would be nice."
He handed her a bottle of water and took a beer for himself. She nodded her thanks.
He unscrewed the top from his beer. The silence grew awkward.
"Why me?" she finally asked.
"You passed me back on the road."
"That's not much of a reason."
He took a long swig of the beer. "Guess I just wanted to know why the hurry. Is news that scarce in Mustang Run?"
"Must be an exciting town."
"About the same as when we were at Mustang Run Elementary School."
His eyes narrowed. "Should I recognize you?"