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His finger twitched and, as if by reflex alone, he squeezed the trigger. The gun vibrated in his hand as the bullet propelled down the barrel. He didn't miss. He never did .
The body dropped facedown onto the flagstones of the patio. Blood saturated clothing and pooled on the patio beneath the body.
Thad Kendall closed the distance between them and hunched down, feeling for a pulse. Nothing flickered beneath the skin, which was already growing cold despite the heat of the fire that was burning down the cottage on the other side of the patio.
Who the hell was this person who had set fire to the cottage and killed the man near the front of the cottagenot to mention fired all those shots that Thad had barely dodged?
He drew in a deep breath of acrid smoke. Then he reached out and rolled the body over so he could see the face. His sister's distinctive green eyes, wide with shock, stared up at him.
"No!" Thad awoke with the shout and jerked upright in bed. He had already kicked off the covers, and a fine sheen of sweat covered his chest and back. The perspiration chilled him nearly as much as the dream had.
But it wasn't just a dream; it was a memory of the shooting that had happened a week ago.
A knock rapped softly against his door, but before he could clear his throat to respond, it creaked open. "You okay?" a feminine voice gently asked.
He grabbed up a T-shirt from beside the bed and dragged it over his head. "Yeah, yeah "
Just as she hadn't hesitated before opening the door, she didn't hesitate before crossing the room and sitting on his bed. "You were yelling," she said. "Did you have a bad dream?"
Thad stared into his sister's wide green eyes, which were full of concern andthank Godlife. He hadn't shot her that night, and the man he had shot hadn't really had her eyes. His had been a flat brown color, but something about the size and shape of themas well as the man's other featureshad reminded Thad so much of Natalie that the image had haunted him ever since he'd turned the body over.
"The worst "
She shuddered. "I know what that's like."
He snaked an arm around her shoulders. "Yes, you do."
Twenty years ago, Natalie had found their parents dead in their beds on Christmas morning, and even though she later hadn't remembered finding their bodies, nightmares had plagued her ever since their brutal murders. A man had been arrested, convicted and sentenced to two life terms, but just recently DNA evidence had proved that man's innocence.
So the real killer was still out there.
It couldn't have been the man Thad had shot. He hadn't been much older than Thad's thirty-one, so he would have been just a kid himself two decades ago. That was about all they knew for certain about the dead guyhis approximate age and that his first name had maybe been Wade.
Even though Wade hadn't been old enough to be the Christmas Eve Killer, as the media had dubbed their parents' murderer, Thad still wanted to learn more about the man he'd killed. Like why he'd been stalking and trying to kill Natalie..
"You used to come into my room and comfort me," she remembered with a wistful sigh.
"And now you're comforting me." He grinned at the irony.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, her blond hair tickling his cheek. He and his oldest brother, Devin, were dark haired and blue eyed like their father had been, while his brother Ash and Natalie had their mother's green eyes. Natalie had her straight blond hair, too.
But her sensitive heart was hers alone. "It's my fault you're having nightmares."
"No, it's not," he denied. She couldn't have guessed what he'd realizedhe had been the first to notice the resemblance between her and her stalker.
"Yes, it is, because you had to shoot that man to save me and Gray." She lifted her head and stared up into his face. "I can't imagine how horrible that must have been for you, killing a man. That's why you're having nightmares, Thad."
If killing a man gave him nightmares, then he wouldn't have been able to sleep for the past several years.
"Maybe you need to talk to someone," she suggested, "so that you can sleep. I bet Gray could help you." Love radiated from her at the mention of her fiance. "He was a Navy SEAL, you know."
"I know." That was why their brother Devin had hired Grayson Scott to protect her when Natalie had first mentioned her stalker to Devin's fiancée, Jolie Carson.
"Or if you're not comfortable talking to Gray, you could talk to Ash." Ash, the second oldest of the Kendall orphans, was also former military and a detective with the St. Louis Police Department.
The oldest, Devin, had joined their uncle, who had become their guardian after their parents' murders, in running their father's communications business. Natalie, the baby at twenty-six, worked for Kendall Communications, too, as a graphic artist in the PR department. Thad was the only Kendall who had left St. Louis and hadn't come back except for very rare visits to check on his family.
Even now he wasn't back for good. Once his parents' murderer was finally brought to justice, he would leave again.
"Natalie." He squeezed her shoulders. "I don't need to talk to anyone about the shooting." But he needed to talk to someone. The DNA results had to be back by now. But instead of thinking about the crime-scene tech who was now his sister-in-law, another woman came to mind. Hell, that woman had never really left his mind once during the four years since he had seen her last.
"If you don't want to talk to anyone about the shooting, you're not going to want to leave the estate," she said with a glance toward the window. Sunlight streamed through the partially open blinds.
"Those damn reporters camped out yet?"
She giggled. "You say that like you're not one of them."
He wasn't. But only a very few people knew that. Everyone else believed he was really just an award-winning photojournalist for a cable network. "Well, I'd rather be doing the interviewing," he clarified, "than being interviewed."
"Wouldn't we all," she murmured.
Growing up a Kendall in St. Louis had been like growing up royalty. The media had recorded their lives, snapping pictures at school dances and proms and their high school graduations. And that coverage always intensified this time of year, around the anniversary of their parents' murders. Since the discovery that their killer had never been caught, the media had gone crazy trying to get the siblings' reactions. And in Thad's case, his story about the shooting his first night back in St. Louis.
"Is that why you're here and not at Gray's?" he asked. "You're hiding out?"
Her face flushed with embarrassment. "Hey, we're not married yet."
"Hasn't stopped the two of you from being joined at the hip," he teased, amused that her big brother's knowing that she stayed at her fiance's would fluster her so much.
"Well, he's my bodyguard," she reminded him. "He's supposed to be with me 24/7."
He chuckled. "Somehow I don't think he considers that a duty of his job. He loves you."
She emitted a happy sigh. "Isn't it wonderful? Devin, Ash and I all found lovetrue love."
"Yeah, wonderful," he murmured sarcastically.
She pinched his arm. "You're such a cynic. I can't wait until you fall in love, brother dear. You're going to fall the hardest of all of us."
He already had. But that was just one more thing his family didn't know about him. Hell, until he'd left her he hadn't even known how hard he'd fallen for her. By the time he'd realized the extent of his feelings, he had been a world away from her and in too deep to get out.
Hell, he hadn't even been able to come back when his family needed him most. By the time he'd finally escaped the life that hardly anyone knew he lived, he'd almost been too late. Natalie had nearly died in the fire her stalker had set to her cottage, and her fiance had nearly been shot to death trying to save her from that fire. The stalker had ambushed Gray as he'd carried Natalie from her burning cottage.
Thad had absolutely no regrets over killing her stalker. In the same situation, he would not have done anything differentlyexcept for making sure he'd had the kill shot before Gray had taken a bullet for his sister. But his future brother-in-law was fine now, fully recovered. Thad was the one everyone kept looking at like he was going to fall apart. Because none of them knew about his work for the U.S. Department of State, they thought the shooting was bothering him.
What was really bothering him was the fact that his parents' murderer had never paid for his horrific crimes. Thad wanted justice.
But that wasn't all he wanted.
Caroline Emerson crooked her neck to cradle the cordless phone between her ear and her shoulder while she folded laundry. Her best friend was given to marathon telephone calls even though they'd just seen each other that morning at church and saw each other every weekday at the elementary school where they both taught.
"You still haven't heard from him?" Tammy asked.
A hard knot tightened in Caroline's stomach, but she forced a smile into her voice. "No."
"But he's been back in St. Louis more than a week now."
And what a week it had been. His handsome face had been all over the news.
Caroline reminded her overly romantic friend, "He's been a little busy."
For once he had been making news instead of reporting it: World famous photojournalist who spent years in war-torn countries finds most danger at home, forced to kill to protect his family.
"I was sure he would call you," Tammy said, her voice heavy with disappointment.
"I was sure he wouldn't." But even though her head had been sensibly convinced that he wouldn't, her stupid heart had held out hope, so she was disappointed, too.
"I set the two of you up four years ago because I knew you were perfect for each other." Because Tammy had found the love of her life, she was convinced that everyone else could find the happiness she had with her husband. She didn't realize how fortunate she had been to find Steve Stehouwerthe sweet man was one in a million.
For the magical month that Thad had been home in St. Louis, Caroline had believed Tammy's matchmaking successful. But she'd had years since then that had proved how wrong her friend had been. Thad Kendall had not been perfect for her at all. But he had given her one perfect.
"He has been busy." Tammy rallied her eternal optimism. "So you should call him."
Caroline choked on her own saliva and the nerves that rushed over her. "No."
"You should have called him right after you found out you were"
"I couldn't reach him then," Caroline interrupted, "and I doubt I'd be able to reach him now."
"I could see if Steve has a contact at the station who could get a message to him." Steve and Thad had taken a journalism class together in college; that was how Tammy had met and then proceeded to introduce Thad to Caroline.
But Steve was an anchor at a local station whereas Thad traveled the world. He'd only been home a month when they'd been going out. Between assignments, he'd explained. Somehow she hadn't thought he was talking about just photojournalism jobs.
The ever-romantic Tammy had believed he would fall in love with Caroline and stay home. And maybe, for a little while, she had let herself believe that, too.
Or at least hope. But those hopes had been dashed forever when he'd left.
As far as Caroline knew, this was the first time he had been home in nearly four years. And in all that time, he hadn't called, hadn't sent her a letter or even a text message. He had obviously forgotten all about her.